Reconciling persistent and dynamic hypotheses of working memory coding in prefrontal cortex
Cavanagh S., Towers J., Wallis J., Hunt L., Kennerley S.
Competing accounts propose that working memory (WM) is subserved either by persistent activity in single neurons or by dynamic (time-varying) activity across a neural population. Here we compare these hypotheses across four regions of prefrontal cortex (PFC) in a spatial WM task, where an intervening distractor indicated the reward available for a correct saccade. WM representations were strongest in ventrolateral PFC (VLPFC) neurons with higher intrinsic temporal stability (time-constant). At the population-level, although a stable mnemonic state was reached during the delay, this tuning geometry was reversed relative to cue-period selectivity, and was disrupted by the distractor. Single-neuron analysis revealed many neurons switched to coding reward, rather than maintaining task-relevant spatial selectivity until saccade. These results imply WM is fulfilled by dynamic, population-level activity within high time-constant neurons. Rather than persistent activity supporting stable mnemonic representations that bridge distraction, PFC neurons may stabilise a dynamic population-level process that supports WM.