Load-dependent roles of frontal brain regions in the maintenance of working memory

Bart Rypma, Vivek Prabhakaran, John E. Desmond, Gary H. Glover, John D E Gabrieli

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

467 Scopus citations


Brain imaging studies have suggested a critical role for prefrontal cortex in working memory (WM) tasks that require both maintainenance and manipulation of information over time in delayed-response WM tasks. In the present study, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to examine whether prefrontal areas are activated when only maintenance is required in a delayed-response WM task, without the overt requirement to manipulate the stored information. In two scans, six subjects performed WM tasks in which, on each trial, they (1) encoded 1, 3, or 6 to-be-remembered letters, (2) maintained these letters across a 5-second unfilled delay, and (3) determined whether a single probe letter was or was not part of the memory set. Activation of left caudal inferior frontal gyrus was observed, relative to the 1-letter task, when subjects were required to maintain 3 letters in WM. When subjects were required to maintain 6 letters in WM, additional prefrontal areas, most notably middle and superior frontal gyri, were activated bilaterally. Thus, increasing the amount of to-be-maintained information, without any overt manipulation requirement, resulted in the recruitment of wide-spread frontal-lobe regions. Inferior frontal gyrus activation was left-hemisphere dominant in both the 3- and 6-letter conditions, suggesting that such activation reflected material-specific verbal processes. Activation in middle and superior frontal gyri appeared only in the 6-letter condition and was right-hemisphere dominant, suggesting that such activation reflected material-independent executive processes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)216-226
Number of pages11
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1999

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neurology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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