The neural bases of distracter-resistant working memory

Citation: Wager, T.D., Spicer, J., Insler, R., Smith, E.E., (2013) The neural bases of distracter-resistant working memory, Cognitive Affective Behavioral Neuroscience.

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A major difference between humans and other animals is our capacity to maintain information in working memory (WM) while performing secondary tasks, which enables sustained, complex cognition. A common assumption is that the lateral prefrontal cortex (PFC) is critical for WM performance in the presence of distracters, but direct evidence is scarce. We assessed the relationship between fMRI activity and WM performance within subjects, with performance matched across distracter and no-distracter conditions. Activity in the ventrolateral PFC during WM encoding and maintenance positively predicted performance in both conditions, whereas activity in the presupplementary motor area (pre-SMA) predicted performance only under distraction. Other parts of the dorsolateral and ventrolateral PFCs predicted performance only in the no-distracter condition. These findings challenge a lateral-PFC-centered view of distracter resistance, and suggest that the lateral PFC supports a type of WM representation that is efficient for dealing with task-irrelevant input but is, nonetheless, easily disrupted by dual-task demands.