History’s Top Brain Computation Insights: Day 17

17) Reverbatory activity in lateral prefrontal cortex maintains memories and attention over short periods (Fuster – 1971, Jacobsen – 1936, Goldman-Rakic – 2000)

Patient H.M., with his lack of long term memory but largely intact working (short-term) memory, illustrated a dissociation between these two forms of memory. While long-term memory seemed to rely on hippocampus and the neocortical temporal lobes, in the 1960s it was not clear how working memory might be maintained.

Hebb had postulated a distributed and dynamic mechanism for working memory that was quite hard to test. However, a more testable hypothesis had emerged from observations of patients with prefrontal cortex damage. Such patients had trouble making and carrying out plans over time, possibly due to a working memory deficit. Previous work by Jacobsen lesioning primate prefrontal cortex supported this theory, but this work was far from conclusive.

In 1970 Joaquin Fuster cooled the monkey prefrontal cortex, showing a reversible deficit in working memory. The following year he recorded from monkey prefrontal cortex neurons and found cells that maintained activity over delay periods (‘memory cells’). These neurons respond not just to the stimulus presentation and the response, but also maintain activity between the two events (see figure for illustration).

A decade later Fuster found visual memory cells in inferior temporal cortex. Subsequent research has suggested that the prefrontal memory cells drive the temporal cortex memory cells to maintain their activity.

Patricia Goldman-Rakic, another monkey neurophysiologist, was instrumental in elucidating the network properties of working memory function. She showed in 2000 that lateral prefrontal and posterior parietal cortices mutually support the sustained working memory activity discovered by Fuster. She also showed the importance of the dopamine system and thalamus in working memory function.

Since the advent of PET and functional MRI in the 1990s a number of researchers have extended the primate working memory findings to humans. Some of these researchers include Jonathan Cohen, Mark D’Esposito, Michael Petrides, Julie Fiez, and John Jonides.

Implication: The mind, largely governed by reward-seeking behavior, is implemented in an electro-chemical organ with distributed and modular function consisting of excitatory and inhibitory neurons communicating via ion-induced action potentials over convergent and divergent synaptic connections strengthened by correlated activity. The cortex, a part of that organ composed of functional column units whose spatial dedication (determined via local competition) determines representational resolution, is composed of many specialized regions involved in perception (e.g., touch: parietal, vision: occipital), action (e.g., frontal), and memory (e.g., short-term: prefrontal, long-term: temporal), which depend on inter-regional communication for functional integration.
[This post is part of a series chronicling history’s top brain computation insights (see the first of the series for a detailed description). See the history category archive to see all of the entries thus far.]


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