Derrfuss, J., Ekman, M., Hanke, M., Tittgemeyer, M., & Fiebach, C. J. (2017). Distractor-resistant short-term memory is supported by transient changes in neural stimulus representation. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. epub.
Goal-directed behavior in a complex world requires the maintenance of goal-relevant information despite multiple sources of distraction. However, the brain mechanisms underlying distractor-resistant working or STM are not fully understood. Although early single-unit recordings in monkeys and fMRI studies in humans pointed to an involvement of lateral prefrontal cortices, more recent studies highlighted the importance of posterior cortices for the active maintenance of visual information also in the presence of distraction. Here, we used a DMS task and multivariate searchlight analyses of fMRI data to investigate STM maintenance across three extended delay phases. Participants maintained two samples (either faces or houses) across an unfilled pre-distractor delay, a distractor-filled delay, and an unfilled post-distractor delay. STM contents (faces vs. houses) could be decoded above-chance in all three delay phases from occipital, temporal, and posterior parietal areas. Classifiers trained to distinguish face versus house maintenance successfully generalized from pre- to post-distraction delays and vice versa, but not to the distractor delay period. Furthermore, classifier performance in all delay phases was correlated with behavioral performance in house, but not face, trials. Our results demonstrate the involvement of distributed posterior, but not lateral prefrontal, cortices in active maintenance during and after distraction. They also show that the neural code underlying STM maintenance is transiently changed in the presence of distractors and reinstated after distraction. The correlation with behavior suggests that active STM maintenance is particularly relevant in house trials, whereas face trials might rely more strongly on contributions from long-term memory.