Quantifying the variability of neural activation in working memory: A functional probabilistic atlas

Neuroimage. 2021 Oct 1:239:118301. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2021.118301. Epub 2021 Jun 22.


Working memory is a fundamental cognitive ability that allows the maintenance and manipulation of information for a brief period of time. Previous studies found a set of brain regions activated during working memory tasks, such as the prefrontal and parietal cortex. However, little is known about the variability of neural activation in working memory. Here, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging to quantify individual, hemispheric, and sex differences of working memory activation in a large cohort of healthy adults (N = 477). We delineated subject-specific activated regions in each individual, including the frontal pole, middle frontal gyrus, frontal eye field, superior parietal lobule, insular, precuneus, and anterior cingulate cortex. A functional probabilistic atlas was created to quantify individual variability in working memory regions. More than 90% of the participants activated all seven regions in both hemispheres, but the intersection of regions across participants was markedly less (50%), indicating significant individual differences in working memory activations. Moreover, we found hemispheric and sex differences in activation location, extent, and magnitude. Most activation regions were larger in the right than in the left hemisphere, but the magnitude of activation did not follow a similar pattern. Men showed more extensive and stronger activations than women. Taken together, our functional probabilistic atlas quantified variabilities of neural activation in working memory, providing a robust spatial reference for standardization of functional localization.

Keywords: Functional probabilistic atlas; Hemispheric difference; Individual difference; Sex difference; Working memory.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Atlases as Topic
  • Biological Variation, Individual
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Cerebral Cortex / diagnostic imaging
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology*
  • Dominance, Cerebral / physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods*
  • Male
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual / physiology
  • Probability
  • Sex Characteristics
  • Young Adult