The temporal evolution of electromagnetic markers sensitive to the capacity limits of visual short-term memory.


An electroencephalographic (EEG) marker of the limited contents of human visual short-term memory (VSTM) has previously been described. Termed contralateral delay activity, this consists of a sustained, posterior, negative potential that correlates with memory load and is greatest contralateral to the remembered hemifield. The current investigation replicates this finding and uses magnetoencephalography (MEG) to characterize its magnetic counterparts and their neural generators as they evolve throughout the memory delay. A parametric manipulation of memory load, within and beyond capacity limits, allows separation of signals that asymptote with behavioral VSTM performance from additional responses that contribute to a linear increase with set-size. Both EEG and MEG yielded bilateral signals that track the number of objects held in memory, and contralateral signals that are independent of memory load. In MEG, unlike EEG, the contralateral interaction between hemisphere and item load is much weaker, suggesting that bilateral and contralateral markers of memory load reflect distinct sources to which EEG and MEG are differentially sensitive. Nonetheless, source estimation allowed both the bilateral and the weaker contralateral capacity-limited responses to be localized, along with a load-independent contralateral signal. Sources of global and hemisphere-specific signals all localized to the posterior intraparietal sulcus during the early delay. However the bilateral load response peaked earlier and its generators shifted later in the delay. Therefore the hemifield-specific response may be more closely tied to memory maintenance while the global load response may be involved in initial processing of a limited number of attended objects, such as their individuation or consolidation into memory.