Dynamic layer-specific processing in the prefrontal cortex during working memory


AbstractThe dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) is reliably engaged in working memory (WM). Evidence from non-human primates indicates that the dlPFC comprises different cytoarchitectonic layers that play distinct roles in WM subprocesses; yet the functional role of the dlPFC’s laminar circuitry in human WM is not well understood. In this study, participants completed a delayed-match-to-sample WM task while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) at ultra-high resolution, which allowed us to examine layer-specific responses of the dlPFC to manipulations in WM load and motor response. We conducted univariate and multivariate analyses across all periods of the WM task: encoding, delay and retrieval. First, we observed that superficial layers activate stronger than deep layers to higher WM load during the delay period. This aligns with earlier work showing preferential superficial layer activation to WM manipulation and as such may indicate lamina-specific activation of the frontoparietal network to heightened task demands more generally. Second, we found that superficial layers show higher decoding of WM load differences than deep layers during the retrieval period. In this context, we could show that decoding of WM load in the superficial layer exhibited dynamic changes across the encoding, delay and retrieval period of the task, indicative of separate WM control processes that occur on the WM content. Last, we found that superficial and deep layers are both non-differentially involved in the motor response, contradicting earlier findings of a preferential deep layer activation in humans. Taken together, our results provide new insights into the functional laminar circuitry of the dlPFC during WM and provide further support for a dynamic account of dlPFC coding.