Brain activity related to working memory for temporal order and object information

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Maintaining items in an appropriate sequence is important for many daily activities; however, remarkably little is known about the neural basis of human temporal working memory. Prior work suggests that the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and medial temporal lobe (MTL), including the hippocampus, play a role in representing information about temporal order. The involvement of these areas in successful temporal working memory, however, is less clear. Additionally, it is unknown whether regions in the PFC and MTL support temporal working memory across different timescales, or at coarse or fine levels of temporal detail. To address these questions, participants were scanned while completing 3 working memory task conditions (Group, Position and Item) that were matched in terms of difficulty and the number of items to be actively maintained. Group and Position trials probed temporal working memory processes, requiring the maintenance of hierarchically organized coarse and fine temporal information, respectively. To isolate activation related to temporal working memory, Group and Position trials were contrasted against Item trials, which required detailed working memory maintenance of visual objects. Results revealed that working memory encoding and maintenance of temporal information relative to visual information was associated with increased activation in dorsolateral PFC (DLPFC), and perirhinal cortex (PRC). In contrast, maintenance of visual details relative to temporal information was characterized by greater activation of parahippocampal cortex (PHC), medial and anterior PFC, and retrosplenial cortex. In the hippocampus, a dissociation along the longitudinal axis was observed such that the anterior hippocampus was more active for working memory encoding and maintenance of visual detail information relative to temporal information, whereas the posterior hippocampus displayed the opposite effect. Posterior parietal cortex was the only region to show sensitivity to temporal working memory across timescales, and was particularly involved in the encoding and maintenance of fine temporal information relative to maintenance of temporal information at more coarse timescales. Collectively, these results highlight the involvement of PFC and MTL in temporal working memory processes, and suggest a dissociation in the type of working memory information represented along the longitudinal axis of the hippocampus.

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