Distinct neural substrates for maintaining locations and spatial relations in working memory

Kara J. Blacker, Susan M. Courtney, Nathalie Tzourio-Mazoyer, Bernhard Spitzer, Derek Evan Nee

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Previous work has demonstrated a distinction between maintenance of two types of spatial information in working memory (WM): spatial locations and spatial relations. While a body of work has investigated the neural mechanisms of sensory-based information like spatial locations, little is known about how spatial relations are maintained in WM. In two experiments, we used fMRI to investigate the involvement of early visual cortex in the maintenance of spatial relations in WM. In both experiments, we found less quadrantspecific BOLD activity in visual cortex when a single spatial relation, compared to a single spatial location, was held in WM. Also across both experiments, we found a consistent set of brain regions that were differentially activated during maintenance of locations vs. relations. Maintaining a location, compared to a relation, was associated with greater activity in typical spatial WM regions like posterior parietal cortex and prefrontal regions. Whereas maintaining a relation, compared to a location, was associated with greater activity in the parahippocampal gyrus and precuneus/retrosplenial cortex. Further, in Experiment 2 we manipulated WM load and included trials where participants had to maintain three spatial locations or relations. Under this high load condition, the regions sensitive to locations vs. relations were somewhat different than under low load. We also identified regions that were sensitive to load specifically for location or relation maintenance, as well as overlapping regions sensitive to load more generally. These results suggest that the neural substrates underlying WM maintenance of spatial locations and relations are distinct from one another and that the neural representations of these distinct types of spatial information change with load.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number594
JournalFrontiers in Human Neuroscience
Issue numberNOV2016
StatePublished - Nov 24 2016


  • Load effects
  • Relational processing
  • Spatial
  • Working memory
  • fMRI

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Neurology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Biological Psychiatry
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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