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Working memory performance is tied to stimulus complexity

Publication year 2023
Published in Communications Biology
Authors Roland Pusch, Julian Packheiser, Amir Hossein Azizi, Celil Semih Sevincik, Jonas Rose, Sen Cheng, Maik C Stüttgen, Onur Güntürkün

Working memory is the cognitive capability to maintain and process information over short periods. Behavioral and computational studies have shown that visual information is associated with working memory performance. However, the underlying neural correlates remain unknown. To identify how visual information affects working memory performance, we conducted behavioral experiments in pigeons (Columba livia) and single unit recordings in the avian prefrontal analog, the nidopallium caudolaterale (NCL). Complex pictures featuring luminance, spatial and color information, were associated with higher working memory performance compared to uniform gray pictures in conjunction with distinct neural coding patterns. For complex pictures, we found a multiplexed neuronal code displaying visual and value-related features that switched to a representation of the upcoming choice during a delay period. When processing gray stimuli, NCL neurons did not multiplex and exclusively represented the choice already during stimulus presentation and throughout the delay period. The prolonged representation possibly resulted in a decay of the memory trace ultimately leading to a decrease in performance. In conclusion, we found that high stimulus complexity is associated with neuronal multiplexing of the working memory representation possibly allowing a facilitated read-out of the neural code resulting in enhancement of working memory performance.

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