Common neural substrates for visual working memory and attention

J.S. Mayer*, R.A. Bittner, D. Nikolic, C. Bledowski, R.W. Goebel, D.E. Linden

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Humans are severely limited in their ability to memorize visual information over short periods of time. Selective attention has been implicated as a limiting factor. Here we used functional magnetic resonance imaging to test the hypothesis that this limitation is due to common neural resources shared by visual working memory (WM) and selective attention. We combined visual search and delayed discrimination of complex objects and independently modulated the demands on selective attention and WM encoding. Participants were presented with a search array and performed easy or difficult visual search in order to encode one or three complex objects into visual WM. Overlapping activation for attention-demanding visual search and WM encoding was observed in distributed posterior and frontal regions. In the right prefrontal cortex and bilateral insula blood oxygen-level-dependent activation additively increased with increased WM load and attentional demand. Conversely, several visual, parietal and premotor areas showed overlapping activation for the two task components and were severely reduced in their WM load response under the condition with high attentional demand. Regions in the left prefrontal cortex were selectively responsive to WM load. Areas selectively responsive to high attentional demand were found within the right prefrontal and bilateral occipital cortex. These results indicate that encoding into visual WM and visual selective attention require to a high degree access to common neural resources. We propose that competition for resources shared by visual attention and WM encoding can limit processing capabilities in distributed posterior brain regions.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)441-453
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2007

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