Causal role of the prefrontal cortex in top-down modulation of visual processing and working memory


Selective attention filters information to limit what is encoded and maintained in working memory. Although the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is central to both selective attention and working memory, the underlying neural processes that link these cognitive abilities remain elusive. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging to guide repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation with electroencephalographic recordings in humans, we perturbed PFC function at the inferior frontal junction in participants before they performed a selective-attention, delayed-recognition task. This resulted in diminished top-down modulation of activity in posterior cortex during early encoding stages, which predicted a subsequent decrement in working memory accuracy. Participants with stronger fronto-posterior functional connectivity displayed greater disruptive effects. Our data further suggests that broad alpha-band (7–14 Hz) phase coherence subserved this long-distance top-down modulation. These results suggest that top-down modulation mediated by the prefrontal cortex is a causal link between early attentional processes and subsequent memory performance.

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Figure 1: Experimental procedure.
Figure 2: Functional connectivity analysis revealed a fronto-parietal region associated with both motion and color top-down modulation, the right IFJ.
Figure 3: Behavioral results.
Figure 4: Attentional modulation of the P1 during color processing and motion processing.
Figure 5: Neuro-behavioral correlations.
Figure 6: Alpha-band phase coherence between right-frontal and central-posterior regions immediately preceding the onset of color stimuli.


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We would like to thank V. Barres and C. Gruson-Daniel for their assistance. This work was supported by US National Institutes of Health grants 1F32AG030249-01A2 (T.P.Z.) and 5R01AG030395 (A.G.).

Author information




T.P.Z., A.T. and A.G. conceptualized and designed the task. T.P.Z. and M.T.R. performed the experiment. T.P.Z. analyzed the data. T.P.Z. and A.G. wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Theodore P Zanto or Adam Gazzaley.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Supplementary Figures 1–3, Supplementary Tables 1 and 2, Supplementary Results and Supplementary Discussion (PDF 801 kb)

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Zanto, T., Rubens, M., Thangavel, A. et al. Causal role of the prefrontal cortex in top-down modulation of visual processing and working memory. Nat Neurosci 14, 656–661 (2011).

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