Uncoupling cognitive workload and prefrontal cortical physiology: a PET rCBF study

Neuroimage. 1998 May;7(4 Pt 1):296-303. doi: 10.1006/nimg.1998.0338.


Working memory is a fundamental cognitive building block involved in the short-term maintenance and transformation of information. In neuropsychological studies, working memory has been shown to be of limited capacity; however, the neurophysiological concomitants of this capacity limitation have not been explored. In this study we used the [15O] water PET rCBF technique and statistical parametric mapping to examine normal subjects while they performed two cognitive tasks, both individually and simultaneously. One task was the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test, a complex reasoning task involving working memory, and the other was a rapidly paced auditory verbal shadowing task. When both tasks were performed simultaneously, there were significant decrements in performance compared with the individual task performance scores, indicating that cognitive workload had been increased. Analysis of the rCBF maps showed that when the two tasks were performed together, in contrast to when they were performed separately, there was less prefrontal activation. These results suggest that increases in cognitive workload do not necessarily recruit and then sustain cortical neurophysiological resources to a maximum, but rather may actually be accompanied by a diminution in cortical activity.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Cerebrovascular Circulation / physiology*
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Prefrontal Cortex / diagnostic imaging*
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology*
  • Psychometrics / methods
  • Tomography, Emission-Computed*