Visual working memory is a central cognitive system for maintaining active representations about currently relevant information. Individual differences in working memory ability reflect a core cognitive ability, as shown by robust correlations with fluid intelligence, scholastic achievement and other broad measures of intellectual function. Furthermore, working memory deficits are a signature of many prevalent mental health disorders, such as attention deficit/ hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), schizophrenia and depression. Thus, a detailed understanding of this system is important for understanding the cognitive effects of these disorders, and for precise assessments of the efficacy of clinical interventions. The broad goal of this proposal is to enhance our understanding of the neural signals that index storage in this online memory system, and to use those signals to refine cognitive models of human memory. A key recent discovery is that the electrophysiological signals that index storage in working memory can be divided into two distinct categories. One class of activity tracks the number of discrete ?items? or objects that are stored in working memory, without regard to the specific information associated with each object. A second class of activity instead tracks the spatial positions that are currently prioritized in the visual field, without regard to the number of independent objects occupying those positions. The proposed work will pursue this insight, refining both neural and cognitive models of human working memory. Finally, while working memory plays a critical role in complex cognition, there is a clear consensus that working memory must interact with qualitatively different memory systems (e.g., long term memory) that store information ?offline? or out of mind. While past work has often sought paradigms that allow a ?pure? assessment of working memory or long term memory, there is a strong need for work that directly examines the dynamic collaboration between these systems. Thus, a central theme of this project will be to identify the specific factors that encourage transitions between online and offline memory states. Specifically, the proposal will follow up on past work showing that observers divide up ongoing continuous experiences into discrete ?event? representations, and that the boundaries between events influence which pieces of information are integrated and segregated in memory. This project will use time-resolved electrophysiological measures of storage in working memory to determine whether event boundaries prompt the flushing of online memories to make way for information about subsequent events, even when there is adequate capacity for concurrent storage. This will provide new insight into the specific cognitive operations that determine how limited online memory capacity is deployed in complex cognitive tasks.

Public Health Relevance

The core goal of the proposed research is to refine our neural and cognitive models of working memory. This online memory system is critical for virtually all complex cognitive tasks, 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)
Project #
Application #
Study Section
Special Emphasis Panel (ZRG1)
Program Officer
Buhring, Bettina D
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
University of Chicago
Schools of Arts and Sciences
United States
Zip Code
Huang, Liqiang; Awh, Edward (2018) Chunking in working memory via content-free labels. Sci Rep 8:23
Adam, Kirsten C S; Robison, Matthew K; Vogel, Edward K (2018) Contralateral Delay Activity Tracks Fluctuations in Working Memory Performance. J Cogn Neurosci 30:1229-1240
Xu, Z; Adam, K C S; Fang, X et al. (2018) The reliability and stability of visual working memory capacity. Behav Res Methods 50:576-588
Feldmann-W├╝stefeld, Tobias; Vogel, Edward K (2018) Neural Evidence for the Contribution of Active Suppression During Working Memory Filtering. Cereb Cortex :
Feldmann-W├╝stefeld, Tobias; Vogel, Edward K; Awh, Edward (2018) Contralateral Delay Activity Indexes Working Memory Storage, Not the Current Focus of Spatial Attention. J Cogn Neurosci 30:1185-1196
Foster, Joshua J; Awh, Edward (2018) The role of alpha oscillations in spatial attention: limited evidence for a suppression account. Curr Opin Psychol 29:34-40
van Moorselaar, Dirk; Foster, Joshua J; Sutterer, David W et al. (2018) Spatially Selective Alpha Oscillations Reveal Moment-by-Moment Trade-offs between Working Memory and Attention. J Cogn Neurosci 30:256-266
Foster, Joshua J; Sutterer, David W; Serences, John T et al. (2017) Alpha-Band Oscillations Enable Spatially and Temporally Resolved Tracking of Covert Spatial Attention. Psychol Sci 28:929-941
Adam, Kirsten C S; Vogel, Edward K; Awh, Edward (2017) Clear evidence for item limits in visual working memory. Cogn Psychol 97:79-97
Foster, Joshua J; Bsales, Emma M; Jaffe, Russell J et al. (2017) Alpha-Band Activity Reveals Spontaneous Representations of Spatial Position in Visual Working Memory. Curr Biol 27:3216-3223.e6

Showing the most recent 10 out of 60 publications