Working memory, the ability to maintain information relevant for successful performance of the ongoing tasks, is a key cognitive ability enabling formulation, execution, and control of goal directed behaviour. Due to its complexity, core role in cognition and impact on everyday living, working memory is a subject of intense interest both in basic as well as applied research. Current state-of-the-art in working memory is characterised by a number of theoretical dilemmas and inconsistencies in empirical findings that can be attributed to both differences in the underlying cognitive and brain systems as well as differences in research methods used. There is an evident lack of integration of theoretical models, empirical methods and findings across levels of observation and disciplines. The current state of research is impeding advances in mapping the structure of working memory, identifying the representations and mechanisms of working memory encoding, maintenance and retrieval, and relating different levels of observation from neurons to behaviour. In applied research and translation to clinical practice, the lack of clear specification of working memory components, representations and mechanisms, hinders identification and understanding of working memory developmental changes and impairments and impedes development of effective diagnostic tools and efficient interventions.
The aim of the proposed research is to contribute to the solution of the identified problems by detailed decomposition of cognitive and neurobiological elements of working memory, and by resolving and integrating specific theoretical and empirical questions through combining research methods at different levels of observation, from phenomenology to cognition and brain activity, employing first person research, behavioural experiments and multimodal brain imaging. The key proposal of the project is that many of the apparent inconsistencies can be resolved by understanding working memory as employing a number of shared and distinct representations and mechanism across its modalities in order to maintain and process information. These can be engaged to a different extent, depending on task requirements and individual differences. Some of the representations might exhibit slot-like, categorical characteristics and be robustly maintained until critical “sudden death” failure, whereas others might be limited by continuous resources and slowly degrade in time. What representations are used can depend on the specific nature of the task, leading to different results in different experimental designs.
To achieve its goals the project proposes addressing three research themes. The aim of the first theme is to use neurophenomenology to identify to what extent participants use different strategies in working memory task performance, identify their neurobiological bases, and investigate to what extent the use of different strategies can be learnt.
The aim of the second theme is to investigate specific features of visual and spatial working memory representations, investigate the neurobiological bases of discrete and continuous representations and explore to what extent their use can be induced by context and task requirements, and shared across the two modalities.
Lastly, the aim of the third theme is to gain specific understanding of the neural representations and mechanisms enabling fine-grained maintenance of location in spatial working memory depending on task requirements and individual differences.
Jointly the aim of the project is to gain better understanding of the neurobiology of working memory and tools for its assessment and monitoring that will allow also advances in identification, monitoring and addressing of working memory dysfunction in psychiatric and neurodegenerative diseases as well as development of interventions for ameliorating cognitive decline in healthy ageing.