The role of prefrontal cortex in working memory: Examining the contents of consciousness

Susan M. Courtney, Laurent Petit, James V. Haxby, Leslie G. Ungerleider

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

205 Scopus citations


Working memory enables us to hold in our 'mind's eye' the contents of our conscious awareness, even in the absence of sensory input, by maintaining an active representation of information for a brief period of time. In this review we consider the functional organization of the prefrontal cortex and its role in this cognitive process. First, we present evidence from brain-imaging studies that prefrontal cortex shows sustained activity during the delay period of visual working memory tasks, indicating that this cortex maintains on-line representations of stimuli after they are removed from view. We then present evidence for domain specificity within frontal cortex based on the type of information, with object working memory mediated by more ventral frontal regions and spatial working memory mediated by more dorsal frontal regions. We also propose that a second dimension for domain specificity within prefrontal cortex might exist for object working memory on the basis of the type of representation, with analytic representations maintained preferentially in the left hemisphere and image-based representations maintained preferentially in the right hemisphere. Furthermore, we discuss the possibility that there are prefrontal areas brought into play during the monitoring and manipulation of information in working memory in addition to those engaged during the maintenance of this information. Finally, we consider the relationship of prefrontal areas important for working memory, both to posterior visual processing areas and to prefrontal areas associated with long-term memory.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1819-1828
Number of pages10
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1377
StatePublished - Nov 29 1998
Externally publishedYes


  • Functional brain imaging
  • Functional magnetic resonance imaging
  • Human cognition
  • Positron emission tomography
  • Visual processing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)


Dive into the research topics of 'The role of prefrontal cortex in working memory: Examining the contents of consciousness'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this