Transient and sustained activity in a distributed neural system for human working memory

Nature. 1997 Apr 10;386(6625):608-11. doi: 10.1038/386608a0.


Working memory involves the short-term maintenance of an active representation of information so that it is available for further processing. Visual working memory tasks, in which subjects retain the memory of a stimulus over brief delays, require both the perceptual encoding of the stimulus and the subsequent maintenance of its representation after the stimulus is removed from view. Such tasks activate multiple areas in visual and prefrontal cortices. To delineate the roles these areas play in perception and working memory maintenance, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to obtain dynamic measures of neural activity related to different components of a face working memory task-non-selective transient responses to visual stimuli, selective transient responses to faces, and sustained responses over memory delays. Three occipitotemporal areas in the ventral object vision pathway had mostly transient responses to stimuli, indicating their predominant role in perceptual processing, whereas three prefrontal areas demonstrated sustained activity over memory delays, indicating their predominant role in working memory. This distinction, however, was not absolute. Additionally, the visual areas demonstrated different degrees of selectivity, and the prefrontal areas demonstrated different strengths of sustained activity, revealing a continuum of functional specialization, from occipital through multiple prefrontal areas, regarding each area's relative contribution to perceptual and mnemonic processing.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology*
  • Face
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Male
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*
  • Occipital Lobe
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology
  • Psychomotor Performance
  • Visual Pathways / physiology
  • Visual Perception / physiology*