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Keywords:

  • attention;
  • cognitive processing;
  • eye movements;
  • fMRI;
  • working memory

Abstract

One characteristic feature of visual working memory (WM) is its limited capacity, and selective attention has been implicated as limiting factor. A possible reason why attention constrains the number of items that can be encoded into WM is that the two processes share limited neural resources. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies have indeed demonstrated commonalities between the neural substrates of WM and attention. Here we investigated whether such overlapping activations reflect interacting neural mechanisms that could result in capacity limitations. To independently manipulate the demands on attention and WM encoding within one single task, we combined visual search and delayed discrimination of spatial locations. Participants were presented with a search array and performed easy or difficult visual search in order to encode one, three or five positions of target items into WM. Our fMRI data revealed colocalised activation for attention-demanding visual search and WM encoding in distributed posterior and frontal regions. However, further analysis yielded two patterns of results. Activity in prefrontal regions increased additively with increased demands on WM and attention, indicating regional overlap without functional interaction. Conversely, the WM load-dependent activation in visual, parietal and premotor regions was severely reduced during high attentional demand. We interpret this interaction as indicating the sites of shared capacity-limited neural resources. Our findings point to differential contributions of prefrontal and posterior regions to the common neural mechanisms that support spatial WM encoding and attention, providing new imaging evidence for attention-based models of WM encoding.