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J Cogn Neurosci. 2011 Sep;23(9):2593-604. doi: 10.1162/jocn.2011.21621. Epub 2011 Jan 31.

Working memory encoding delays top-down attention to visual cortex.

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Beckman Institute, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, 405N Mathews, Urbana, IL 61801, USA.


The encoding of information from one event into working memory can delay high-level, central decision-making processes for subsequent events [e.g., Jolicoeur, P., & Dell'Acqua, R. The demonstration of short-term consolidation. Cognitive Psychology, 36, 138-202, 1998, doi:10.1006/cogp.1998.0684]. Working memory, however, is also believed to interfere with the deployment of top-down attention [de Fockert, J. W., Rees, G., Frith, C. D., & Lavie, N. The role of working memory in visual selective attention. Science, 291, 1803-1806, 2001, doi:10.1126/science.1056496]. It is, therefore, possible that, in addition to delaying central processes, the engagement of working memory encoding (WME) also postpones perceptual processing as well. Here, we tested this hypothesis with time-resolved fMRI by assessing whether WME serially postpones the action of top-down attention on low-level sensory signals. In three experiments, participants viewed a skeletal rapid serial visual presentation sequence that contained two target items (T1 and T2) separated by either a short (550 msec) or long (1450 msec) SOA. During single-target runs, participants attended and responded only to T1, whereas in dual-target runs, participants attended and responded to both targets. To determine whether T1 processing delayed top-down attentional enhancement of T2, we examined T2 BOLD response in visual cortex by subtracting the single-task waveforms from the dual-task waveforms for each SOA. When the WME demands of T1 were high (Experiments 1 and 3), T2 BOLD response was delayed at the short SOA relative to the long SOA. This was not the case when T1 encoding demands were low (Experiment 2). We conclude that encoding of a stimulus into working memory delays the deployment of attention to subsequent target representations in visual cortex.

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