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Cereb Cortex. 2011 Dec;21(12):2722-32. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhr058. Epub 2011 Apr 28.

Changes in prefrontal neuronal activity after learning to perform a spatial working memory task.

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Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy, Wake Forest University School of Medicine, Winston-Salem, NC 27157-1010, USA.


The prefrontal cortex is considered essential for learning to perform cognitive tasks though little is known about how the representation of stimulus properties is altered by learning. To address this issue, we recorded neuronal activity in monkeys before and after training on a task that required visual working memory. After the subjects learned to perform the task, we observed activation of more prefrontal neurons and increased activity during working memory maintenance. The working memory-related increase in firing rate was due mostly to regular-spiking putative pyramidal neurons. Unexpectedly, the selectivity of neurons for stimulus properties and the ability of neurons to discriminate between stimuli decreased as the information about stimulus properties was apparently present in neural firing prior to training and neuronal selectivity degraded after training in the task. The effect was robust and could not be accounted for by differences in sampling sites, selection of neurons, level of performance, or merely the elapse of time. The results indicate that, in contrast to the effects of perceptual learning, mastery of a cognitive task degrades the apparent stimulus selectivity as neurons represent more abstract information related to the task. This effect is countered by the recruitment of more neurons after training.

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