The left intraparietal sulcus and verbal short-term memory: Focus of attention or serial order?

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One of the most consistently activated regions during verbal short-term memory (STM) tasks is the left intraparietal sulcus (IPS). However, its precise role remains a matter of debate. While some authors consider the IPS to be a specific store for serial order information, other data suggest that it serves a more general function of attentional focalization. In the current fMRI experiment, we investigated these two hypotheses by presenting different verbal STM conditions that probed recognition for word identity or word order and by assessing functional connectivity of the left IPS with distant brain areas. If the IPS has a role of attentional focalization, then it should be involved in both order and item conditions, but it should be connected to different brain regions, depending on the neural substrates involved in processing the different types of information (order versus phonological/orthographic) to be remembered in the item and order STM conditions. We observed that the left IPS was activated in both order and item STM conditions but for different reasons: during order STM, the left IPS was functionally connected to serial/temporal order processing areas in the right IPS, premotor and cerebellar cortices, while during item STM, the left IPS was connected to phonological and orthographic processing areas in the superior temporal and fusiform gyri. Our data support a position considering that the left IPS acts as an attentional modulator of distant neural networks which themselves are specialized in processing order or language representations. More generally, they strengthen attention-based accounts of verbal STM.

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