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Dissociable neural mechanisms supporting visual short-term memory for objects


Using visual information to guide behaviour requires storage in a temporary buffer, known as visual short-term memory (VSTM)1, that sustains attended information across saccades and other visual interruptions. There is growing debate on whether VSTM capacity is limited to a fixed number of objects2,3 or whether it is variable4,5. Here we report four experiments using functional magnetic resonance imaging that resolve this controversy by dissociating the representation capacities of the parietal and occipital cortices. Whereas representations in the inferior intra-parietal sulcus (IPS) are fixed to about four objects at different spatial locations regardless of object complexity, those in the superior IPS and the lateral occipital complex are variable, tracking the number of objects held in VSTM, and representing fewer than four objects as their complexity increases. These neural response patterns were observed during both VSTM encoding and maintenance. Thus, multiple systems act together to support VSTM: whereas the inferior IPS maintains spatial attention over a fixed number of objects at different spatial locations, the superior IPS and the lateral occipital complex encode and maintain a variable subset of the attended objects, depending on their complexity. VSTM capacity is therefore determined both by a fixed number of objects and by object complexity.

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Figure 1: Example trials from experiments 1, 2 and 4.
Figure 2: Results from experiments 1, 2 and 4.
Figure 3: Results from experiment 3.


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We thank D. Widders for assistance in MRI scanning, and S. J. Luck and R. Marois for comments on earlier versions of this manuscript. This research was supported by an NIH grant to M.M.C. and in part by an NSF grant to Y.X.

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Correspondence to Yaoda Xu.

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Supplementary Methods

This file describe the details of the experimental design. (DOC 33 kb)

Supplementary Figure

Illustrates the localizer scans used in the study. (PDF 1208 kb)

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Xu, Y., Chun, M. Dissociable neural mechanisms supporting visual short-term memory for objects. Nature 440, 91–95 (2006).

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