Frontal lobe involvement in spatial span: converging studies of normal and impaired function.


Although monkey lesion studies involving the prefrontal cortex commonly report working memory deficits, and neuroimaging studies consistently show prefrontal involvement in such tasks, patients with damage to this region commonly fail to show any working memory impairment. Such a discrepancy may be due to insensitive testing measures for patients, as well as small, yet critical differences between working memory tasks in imaging and patient studies. The current study utilised a more sensitive measure of spatial working memory spans, based either on structured or unstructured spatial arrays. A PET study in normal subjects confirmed that both variants did indeed activate prefrontal cortex. The same tasks were given to frontal lobe patients and closely matched controls. Patients with large frontal lesions were significantly impaired on this task, with those patients with damage to the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex appearing particularly impaired. This result demonstrates that prefrontal cortex is necessary for normal working memory, even in simple tasks, such as spatial span. It is suggested, however, that the patient deficit reflects strategic or goal-based dysfunction, rather than storage limitations.