Brain activation during associative short-term memory maintenance is not predictive for subsequent retrieval.

H. Bergmann, S. Daselaar, S. Beul, M. Rijpkema, G. Fernández and R. Kessels




Performance on working memory (WM) tasks may partially be supported by long-term memory (LTM) processing. Hence, brain activation recently being implicated in WM may actually have been driven by (incidental) LTM formation. We examined which brain regions actually support successful WM processing, rather than being confounded by LTM processes, during the maintenance and probe phase of a WM task. We administered a four-pair (faces and houses) associative delayed-match-to-sample (WM) task using event-related functional MRI (fMRI) and a subsequent associative recognition LTM task, using the same stimuli. This enabled us to analyze subsequent memory effects for both the WM and the LTM test by contrasting correctly recognized pairs with incorrect pairs for either task. Critically, with respect to the subsequent WM effect, we computed this analysis exclusively for trials that were forgotten in the subsequent LTM recognition task. Hence, brain activity associated with successful WM processing was less likely to be confounded by incidental LTM formation. The subsequent LTM effect, in contrast, was analyzed exclusively for pairs that previously had been correctly recognized in the WM task, disclosing brain regions involved in successful LTM formation after successful WM processing. Results for the subsequent WM effect showed no significantly activated brain areas for WM maintenance, possibly due to an insensitivity of fMRI to mechanisms underlying active WM maintenance. In contrast, a correct decision at WM probe was linked to activation in the "retrieval success network" (anterior and posterior midline brain structures). The subsequent LTM analyses revealed greater activation in left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and posterior parietal cortex in the early phase of the maintenance stage. No supra-threshold activation was found during the WM probe. Together, we obtained clearer insights in which brain regions support successful WM and LTM without the potential confound of the respective memory system.

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