Galeano Weber, E. M., Peters, B., Hahn, T.,Bledowski, C., & Fiebach, C. J. (2016). Superior intraparietal sulcus controls the variability of visual working memory precision. Journal of Neuroscience, 36, 5623-35.
Limitations of working memory (WM) capacity depend strongly on the cognitive resources that are available for maintaining WM contents in an activated state. Increasing the number of items to be maintained in WM was shown to reduce the precision of WM and to increase the variability of WM precision over time. Although WM precision was recently associated with neural codes particularly in early sensory cortex, we have so far no understanding of the neural bases underlying the variability of WM precision, and how WM precision is preserved under high load. To fill this gap, we combined human fMRI with computational modeling of behavioral performance in a delayed color-estimation WM task. Behavioral results replicate a reduction of WM precision and an increase of precision variability under high loads (5 > 3 > 1 colors). Load-dependent BOLD signals in primary visual cortex (V1) and superior intraparietal sulcus (IPS), measured during the WM task at 2-4 s after sample onset, were modulated by individual differences in load-related changes in the variability of WM precision. Although stronger load-related BOLD increase in superior IPS was related to lower increases in precision variability, thus stabilizing WM performance, the reverse was observed for V1. Finally, the detrimental effect of load on behavioral precision and precision variability was accompanied by a load-related decline in the accuracy of decoding the memory stimuli (colors) from left superior IPS. We suggest that the superior IPS may contribute to stabilizing visual WM performance by reducing the variability of memory precision in the face of higher load.
This study investigates the neural bases of capacity limitations in visual working memory by combining fMRI with cognitive modeling of behavioral performance, in human participants. It provides evidence that the superior intraparietal sulcus (IPS) is a critical brain region that influences the variability of visual working memory precision between and within individuals (Fougnie et al., 2012; van den Berg et al., 2012) under increased memory load, possibly in cooperation with perceptual systems of the occipital cortex. These findings substantially extend our understanding of the nature of capacity limitations in visual working memory and their neural bases. Our work underlines the importance of integrating cognitive modeling with univariate and multivariate methods in fMRI research, thus improving our knowledge of brain-behavior relationships.