To explore the brain mechanisms underlying multi-item working memory, we monitored the activity of neurons in dorsolateral prefrontal cortex while macaque monkeys performed spatial and chromatic versions of a Sternberg working-memory task. Each trial required holding three sequentially presented samples in working memory so as to identify a subsequent probe matching one of them. The monkeys were able to recall all three samples at levels well above chance, exhibiting modest load and recency effects. Prefrontal neurons signaled the identity of each sample during the delay period immediately following its presentation. However, as each new sample was presented, the representation of antecedent samples became weak and shifted to an anomalous code. A linear classifier operating on the basis of population activity during the final delay period was able to perform at approximately the level of the monkeys on trials requiring recall of the third sample but showed a falloff in performance on trials requiring recall of the first or second sample much steeper than observed in the monkeys. We conclude that delay-period activity in prefrontal cortex robustly represented only the most recent item. The monkeys apparently based performance of this classic working-memory task on some storage mechanism in addition to the prefrontal delay-period firing rate. Possibilities include delay-period activity in areas outside prefrontal cortex and changes within prefrontal cortex not manifest at the level of the firing rate.
- working memory
- non-human primates
- prefrontal cortex
- Copyright © 2016, Journal of Neurophysiology