Impact of load-related neural processes on feature binding in visuospatial working memory

Nicole A. Kochan, Michael Valenzuela, Melissa J. Slavin, Stacey McCraw, Perminder S. Sachdev, Michael Breakspear

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Citations (Scopus)


Background: The capacity of visual working memory (WM) is substantially limited and only a fraction of what we see is maintained as a temporary trace. The process of binding visual features has been proposed as an adaptive means of minimising information demands on WM. However the neural mechanisms underlying this process, and its modulation by task and load effects, are not well understood. Objective: To investigate the neural correlates of feature binding and its modulation by WM load during the sequential phases of encoding, maintenance and retrieval. Methods and Findings: 18 young healthy participants performed a visuospatial WM task with independent factors of load and feature conjunction (object identity and position) in an event-related functional MRI study. During stimulus encoding, load-invariant conjunction-related activity was observed in left prefrontal cortex and left hippocampus. During maintenance, greater activity for task demands of feature conjunction versus single features, and for increased load was observed in left-sided regions of the superior occipital cortex, precuneus and superior frontal cortex. Where these effects were expressed in overlapping cortical regions, their combined effect was additive. During retrieval, however, an interaction of load and feature conjunction was observed. This modulation of feature conjunction activity under increased load was expressed through greater deactivation in medial structures identified as part of the default mode network. Conclusions and Significance: The relationship between memory load and feature binding qualitatively differed through each phase of the WM task. Of particular interest was the interaction of these factors observed within regions of the default mode network during retrieval which we interpret as suggesting that at low loads, binding processes may be 'automatic' but at higher loads it becomes a resource-intensive process leading to disengagement of activity in this network. These findings provide new insights into how feature binding operates within the capacity-limited WM system.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere23960
Pages (from-to)1-14
Number of pages14
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 24 Aug 2011
Externally publishedYes


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