fMRI study of effort and information processing in a working memory task

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It is unclear how effort translates into brain function. In this study we endeavored to identify the activity in a working memory task that is related to the allocation of mental resources. Such activity, if present, would be a likely candidate to explain how effort works in terms of brain function. Eleven healthy participants performed a Sternberg task with a memory-set of one, three, or five consonants in an fMRI study. Probe stimuli were either one consonant or one digit. We expected digits to be processed automatically and consonants to require working memory. Because the probe type was unpredictable and subjects had to respond as fast as possible, we expected subjects to allocate mental resources on the basis of the memory-set size, not the probe type. Accordingly, we anticipated that activity in regions involved in effort would be a function of the size of the memory-set, but independent of the type of probe. We found that the reaction-time for digits increased in line with our expectation of automatic processing and the reaction time for letters increased in line with our expectation of controlled processing. fMRI revealed that activity in the right ventral-prefrontal cortex changed as a function of effort. The ventral anterior cingulate cortex and hypothalamus showed reduced activity as a function of effort. Activity in regions regarded as pivotal for working memory (among others, the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex) appeared to be predominantly related to information processing and not involved in effort. Hum Brain Mapp, 2007. © 2006 Wiley-Liss, Inc.

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