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Trends Neurosci. 2017 Jun;40(6):328-346. doi: 10.1016/j.tins.2017.04.004. Epub 2017 May 14.

Sustained Activity Encoding Working Memories: Not Fully Distributed.

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Department of Physiology, McGill University, Montreal, QC H3G 1Y6, Canada. Electronic address:
McGovern Institute for Brain Research, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA 02139, USA.
Robarts Research Institute, Brain and Mind Institute, Department of Psychiatry, and Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, University of Western Ontario, London, ON N6A 5B7, Canada. Electronic address:


Working memory (WM) is the ability to remember and manipulate information for short time intervals. Recent studies have proposed that sustained firing encoding the contents of WM is ubiquitous across cortical neurons. We review here the collective evidence supporting this claim. A variety of studies report that neurons in prefrontal, parietal, and inferotemporal association cortices show robust sustained activity encoding the location and features of memoranda during WM tasks. However, reports of WM-related sustained activity in early sensory areas are rare, and typically lack stimulus specificity. We propose that robust sustained activity that can support WM coding arises as a property of association cortices downstream from the early stages of sensory processing.


fMRI; neurophysiology; primate; review; sustained activity; working memory

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