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J Neurosci. 2009 Oct 28;29(43):13735-41. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2547-09.2009.

What "works" in working memory? Separate systems for selection and updating of critical information.

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Institute of Medical Psychology, Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main, Germany.


Cognition depends critically on working memory, the active representation of a limited number of items over short periods of time. In addition to the maintenance of information during the course of cognitive processing, many tasks require that some of the items in working memory become transiently more important than others. Based on cognitive models of working memory, we hypothesized two complementary essential cognitive operations to achieve this: a selection operation that retrieves the most relevant item, and an updating operation that changes the focus of attention onto it. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, high-resolution oculometry, and behavioral analysis, we demonstrate that these two operations are functionally and neuroanatomically dissociated. Updating the attentional focus elicited transient activation in the caudal superior frontal sulcus and posterior parietal cortex. In contrast, increasing demands on selection selectively modulated activation in rostral superior frontal sulcus and posterior cingulate/precuneus. We conclude that prioritizing one memory item over others invokes independent mechanisms of mnemonic retrieval and attentional focusing, each with its distinct neuroanatomical basis within frontal and parietal regions. These support the developing understanding of working memory as emerging from the interaction between memory and attentional systems.

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