Neural mechanisms of attending to items in working memory

Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2019 Jun;101:1-12. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2019.03.017. Epub 2019 Mar 26.


Working memory, the ability to keep recently accessed information available for immediate manipulation, has been proposed to rely on two mechanisms that appear difficult to reconcile: self-sustained neural firing, or the opposite-activity-silent synaptic traces. Here we review and contrast models of these two mechanisms, and then show that both phenomena can co-exist within a unified system in which neurons hold information in both activity and synapses. Rapid plasticity in flexibly-coding neurons allows features to be bound together into objects, with an important emergent property being the focus of attention. One memory item is held by persistent activity in an attended or "focused" state, and is thus remembered better than other items. Other, previously attended items can remain in memory but in the background, encoded in activity-silent synaptic traces. This dual functional architecture provides a unified common mechanism accounting for a diversity of perplexing attention and memory effects that have been hitherto difficult to explain in a single theoretical framework.

Keywords: Attention; Attractor network; Hebbian plasticity; Neural networks; Working memory.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*
  • Models, Neurological
  • Neural Networks, Computer
  • Neuronal Plasticity*
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Synapses / physiology