Between persistently active and activity-silent frameworks: novel vistas on the cellular basis of working memory

Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2020 Mar;1464(1):64-75. doi: 10.1111/nyas.14213. Epub 2019 Aug 13.


Recent work has revealed important new discoveries on the cellular mechanisms of working memory (WM). These findings have motivated several seemingly conflicting theories on the mechanisms of short-term memory maintenance. Here, we summarize the key insights gained from these new experiments and critically evaluate them in light of three hypotheses: classical persistent activity, activity-silent, and dynamic coding. The experiments discussed include the first direct demonstration of persistently active neurons in the human medial temporal lobe that form static attractors with relevance to WM, single-neuron recordings in the macaque prefrontal cortex that show evidence for both persistent and more dynamic types of WM representations, and noninvasive neuroimaging in humans that argues for activity-silent representations. A key insight that emerges from these new results is that there are several neural mechanisms that support the maintenance of information in WM. Finally, based on established cognitive theories of WM, we propose a coherent model that encompasses these seemingly contradictory results. We propose that the three neuronal mechanisms of persistent activity, activity-silent, and dynamic coding map well onto the cognitive levels of information processing (within focus of attention, activated long-term memory, and central executive) that Cowan's WM model proposes.

Keywords: attractors; dynamic coding; persistent activity; single-neuron recordings; static coding; working memory.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Macaca / physiology
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology*