Stable and Dynamic Coding for Working Memory in Primate Prefrontal Cortex.
Spaak E., Watanabe K., Funahashi S., Stokes MG.
Working memory (WM) provides the stability necessary for high-level cognition. Influential theories typically assume that WM depends on the persistence of stable neural representations, yet increasing evidence suggests that neural states are highly dynamic. Here we apply multivariate pattern analysis to explore the population dynamics in primate lateral prefrontal cortex (PFC) during three variants of the classic memory-guided saccade task (recorded in four animals). We observed the hallmark of dynamic population coding across key phases of a working memory task: sensory processing, memory encoding, and response execution. Throughout both these dynamic epochs and the memory delay period, however, the neural representational geometry remained stable. We identified two characteristics that jointly explain these dynamics: (1) time-varying changes in the subpopulation of neurons coding for task variables (i.e., dynamic subpopulations); and (2) time-varying selectivity within neurons (i.e., dynamic selectivity). These results indicate that even in a very simple memory-guided saccade task, PFC neurons display complex dynamics to support stable representations for WM.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Flexible, intelligent behavior requires the maintenance and manipulation of incoming information over various time spans. For short time spans, this faculty is labeled "working memory" (WM). Dominant models propose that WM is maintained by stable, persistent patterns of neural activity in prefrontal cortex (PFC). However, recent evidence suggests that neural activity in PFC is dynamic, even while the contents of WM remain stably represented. Here, we explored the neural dynamics in PFC during a memory-guided saccade task. We found evidence for dynamic population coding in various task epochs, despite striking stability in the neural representational geometry of WM. Furthermore, we identified two distinct cellular mechanisms that contribute to dynamic population coding.