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J Neurosci. 2009 Mar 11;29(10):3259-70. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.5353-08.2009.

Reward-dependent modulation of working memory in lateral prefrontal cortex.

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  • 1Department of Psychology and Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute, University of California at Berkeley, California 94720-3190, USA.


Although research implicates lateral prefrontal cortex (PFC) in executive control and goal-directed behavior, it remains unclear how goals influence executive processes. One possibility is that goal-relevant information, such as expected rewards, could modulate the representation of information relating to executive control, thereby ensuring the efficient allocation of cognitive resources. To investigate this, we examined how reward modulated spatial working memory. Past studies investigating spatial working memory have focused on dorsolateral PFC, but this area only weakly connects with areas processing reward. Ventrolateral PFC has better connections in this regard. Thus, we contrasted the functional properties of single neurons in ventrolateral and dorsolateral PFC as two subjects performed a task that required them to hold spatial information in working memory under different expectancies of reward for correct performance. We balanced the order of presentation of spatial and reward information so we could assess the neuronal encoding of the two pieces of information independently and conjointly. Neurons in ventrolateral PFC encoded both spatial and reward information earlier, stronger and in a more sustained manner than neurons in dorsolateral PFC. Within ventrolateral PFC, spatial selectivity was more prevalent on the inferior convexity than within the principal sulcus. Finally, when reward increased spatial selectivity, behavioral performance improved, whereas when reward decreased spatial selectivity, behavioral performance deteriorated. These results suggest that ventrolateral PFC may be a locus whereby information about expected rewards can modulate information in working memory. The pattern of results is consistent with a role for ventrolateral PFC in attentional control.

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