Comparing verbal working memory load with fNIRS

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Comparing verbal working memory load in auditory and visual modalities using functional near-infrared spectroscopy.

The verbal identity n-back task is commonly used to assess verbal working memory (VWM) capacity. Only three studies have compared brain activation during the n-back when using auditory and visual stimuli. The earliest study, a positron emission tomography study of the 3-back, found no differences in VWM-related brain activation between n-back modalities. In contrast, two subsequent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies of the 2-back found that auditory VWM was associated with greater left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DL-PFC) activation than visual VWM, perhaps suggesting that auditory VWM requires more cognitive effort than its visual counterpart. The current study aimed to assess whether DL-PFC activation (i.e., cognitive effort) differs by VWM modality. To do this, 16 younger adults completed an auditory and visual n-back, both at four levels of VWM load. Concurrently, activation of the PFC was measured using functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), a silent neuroimaging method. We found that DL-PFC activation increased with VWM load, but it was not affected by VWM modality or the interaction between load and modality. This supports the view that both VWM modalities require similar cognitive effort, and perhaps that previous fMRI results were an artefact of scanner noise. We also found that, across conditions, DL-PFC activation was positively correlated with reaction time. This may further support DL-PFC activation as an index of cognitive effort, and fNIRS as a method to measure it.

PMID: 33422594 [PubMed – as supplied by publisher]

Behav Brain Res. 2021 Jan 07;:113102

Authors: Rovetti J, Goy H, Nurgitz R, Russo FA

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