Flexible coding of visual working memory representations during distraction.

Lorenc, ES, Sreenivasan KK, Nee DE, Vandenbroucke ARE, D'Esposito M.  2018.  Flexible coding of visual working memory representations during distraction., 2018 May 08. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience.


Visual working memory (VWM) recruits a broad network of brain regions, including prefrontal, parietal, and visual cortices. Recent evidence supports a "sensory recruitment" model of VWM, whereby precise visual details are maintained in the same stimulus-selective regions responsible for perception. A key question in evaluating the sensory recruitment model is how VWM representations persist through distracting visual input, given that the early visual areas that putatively represent VWM content are susceptible to interference from visual stimulation.To address this question, we employed an fMRI inverted encoding model approach to quantitatively assess the effect of distractors on VWM representations in early visual cortex and the intraparietal sulcus (IPS), another region previously implicated in the storage of VWM information. This approach allowed us to reconstruct VWM representations for orientation, both before and after visual interference, and to examine whether oriented distractors systematically biased these representations. In our human participants (both male and female), we found that orientation information was maintained simultaneously in early visual areas and IPS in anticipation of possible distraction, and these representations persisted in the absence of distraction. Importantly, early visual representations were susceptible to interference; VWM orientations reconstructed from visual cortex were significantly biased toward distractors, corresponding to a small attractive bias in behavior. In contrast, IPS representations did not show such a bias. These results provide quantitative insight into the effect of interference on VWM representations, and suggest a dynamic tradeoff between visual and parietal regions that allows flexible adaptation to task demands in service of VWM.Despite considerable evidence that stimulus-selective visual regions maintain precise visual information in working memory, it remains unclear how these representations persist through subsequent input. Here, we used quantitative model-based fMRI analyses to reconstruct the contents of working memory and examine the effects of distracting input. While representations in the early visual areas were systematically biased by distractors, those in the intraparietal sulcus appeared distractor-resistant. In contrast, early visual representations were most reliable in the absence of distraction. These results demonstrate the dynamic, adaptive nature of visual working memory processes, and provide quantitative insight into the ways in which representations can be affected by interference. Further, they suggest that current models of working memory should be revised to incorporate this flexibility.