How does the human brain manage multiple bits of information to guide goal-directed behavior? Successful working memory (WM) functioning has consistently been linked to oscillatory power in the theta frequency band (4-8 Hz) over fronto-medial cortex (fronto-medial theta [FMT]). Specifically, FMT is thought to reflect the mechanism of an executive sub-system that coordinates maintenance of memory contents in posterior regions. However, direct evidence for the role of FMT in controlling specific WM content is lacking. Here, we collected high-density electroencephalography (EEG) data while participants engaged in WM-dependent tasks and then used multivariate decoding methods to examine WM content during the maintenance period. Engagement of WM was accompanied by a focal increase in FMT. Importantly, decoding of WM content was driven by posterior sites, which, in turn, showed increased functional theta coupling with fronto-medial channels. Finally, we observed a significant slowing of FMT frequency with increasing WM load, consistent with the hypothesized broadening of a theta "duty cycle" to accommodate additional WM items. Together, these findings demonstrate that frontal theta orchestrates posterior maintenance of WM content. Moreover, the observed frequency slowing elucidates the function of FMT oscillations by specifically supporting phase-coding accounts of WM.
Keywords: MVPA; content; fronto-medial theta; n back; working memory.
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