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Drifting codes within a stable coding scheme for working memory

Wolff MJ, Jochim J, Akyürek EG, Buschman TJ, Stokes MG

PLoS Biology, March 2, 2020.

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Working memory (WM) is important to maintain information over short time periods to provide some stability in a constantly changing environment. However, brain activity is inherently dynamic, raising a challenge for maintaining stable mental states. To investigate the relationship between WM stability and neural dynamics, we used electroencephalography to measure the neural response to impulse stimuli during a WM delay. Multivariate pattern analysis revealed representations were both stable and dynamic: there was a clear difference in neural states between time-specific impulse responses, reflecting dynamic changes, yet the coding scheme for memorised orientations was stable. This suggests that a stable subcomponent in WM enables stable maintenance within a dynamic system. A stable coding scheme simplifies readout for WM-guided behaviour, whereas the low-dimensional dynamic component could provide additional temporal information. Despite having a stable subspace, WM is clearly not perfect—memory performance still degrades over time. Indeed, we find that even within the stable coding scheme, memories drift during maintenance. When averaged across trials, such drift contributes to the width of the error distribution.

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