Working memory (WM) is a system for maintaining online representations of information in the service of virtually all explicit cognitive processes (e.g., memory retrieval, problem solving). WM's core role in cognition is also highlighted by strong correlations between WM capacity and fluid intelligence as various measures of scholastic achievement. Furthermore, deficits in WM performance are associated with prevalent clinical disorders, including attention deficit/ hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and schizophrenia. The proposed research will address fundamental questions regarding the basic determinants of capacity limits in WM. Is capacity limited by a maximum number of items that can be represented simultaneously in WM? Or is it limited by the available mnemonic resolution (i.e., clarity) necessary for representing a given set of items? Our preliminary data suggest that rather than being determined by a single factor, number and resolution are distinct facets of WM capacity. The proposed research seeks to further detail how these two factors interact to limit WM performance by means of a combination of psychophysical procedures, human electrophysiological recordings (ERPs), and novel neural decoding techniques using FMRI. This project will focus on four critical questions regarding how the factors of number and resolution determine WM capacity. First, we will examine whether number and resolution limits for an individual are stimulus-specific or whether they reflect more stimulus-general limitations. Second, we will explore how individuals can voluntarily control the allocation of these two limited memory resources. Third, we will measure how an individual's implicit knowledge about likely target locations can influence the allocation of WM capacity. Finally, we will use multi-voxel pattern analysis (MVPA) on neuroimaging data to assess how visual sensory areas of cortex are recruited to help represent information in WM and whether they help to determine an individual's mnemonic resolution. Thus, the general goal of this research is to more finely characterize the nature of capacity limits in WM, and to further characterize the mechanisms that control access to this limited mental workspace. A better understanding of these basic research questions will enable a more precise characterization of psychopathologies that involve impaired cognitive processing, supporting both basic and translational research in the domain of mental health.

Public Health Relevance

The core goal of the proposed research is to better characterize the nature of capacity limits in human working memory. This memory system is a core part of most cognitive processes, and capacity in this system is correlated with fluid intelligence and scholastic achievement. Because disruptions of working memory are common in prevalent clinical disorders such as ADHD and schizophrenia, a better understanding of the behavioral and neural underpinning of this system will have a beneficial impact on both the diagnosis and treatment of psychopathologies that involve impaired cognition.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
Research Project (R01)
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Special Emphasis Panel (ZRG1-BBBP-L (02))
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Osborn, Bettina D
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University of Oregon
Schools of Arts and Sciences
United States
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