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On the neural basis of working memory:
How the brain retains information in the face of distraction


Every time we open our eyes, we are bombarded with visual information. At the same time, we need to retain previously observed information to keep track of our goals and whereabouts. How can we remember relevant visual information when we are continuously processing new information? Recent studies have shown that when we have to maintain visual information over a short delay period, our visual system that deals with the initial processing of stimuli is recruited to keep representations active. However, these studies have focused on the mechanisms of remembering visual information in a setting where there is no visual distraction. This obviously does not apply to everyday situations. Although in fundamental science it is necessary to first pinpoint the basic processes underlying complex constructs, we are now ready to move beyond this simplification and investigate more life-like situations. In this project, we will use a combination of functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) to investigate which neural mechanisms are responsible for retaining visual information in the face of distraction. Specifically, we will investigate how remembered, but currently unused items are stored, and in which manner this information is activated for subsequent use. We will use newly developed fMRI analysis techniques to pinpoint the locus and nature of unused representations, and causally confirm these by applying TMS to these regions at specific moments in time. At the end of this project, we will have gained important insight into the neural underpinnings of visual working memory as we use it in daily life. This will provide a basis for understanding and improving the performance of tasks in a highly demanding visual environment. For example, better training for air traffic controllers and security guards could be developed, and the presentation of school material for children, especially those easily distracted, could be improved.

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Houtlaan 4
6525 XZ Nijmegen
Activity type
Higher or Secondary Education Establishments
EU contribution
€ 259 293,30
Administrative Contact
Petra Ten Have (Ms.)