Mechanism for top-down control of working memory capacity

Fredrik Edin*, Torkel Klingberg, Pär Johansson, Fiona McNab, Jesper Tegnér, Albert Compte

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

247 Scopus citations


Working memory capacity, the maximum number of items that we can transiently store in working memory, is a good predictor of our general cognitive abilities. Neural activity in both dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and posterior parietal cortex has been associated with memory retention during visuospatial working memory tasks. The parietal cortex is thought to store the memories. However, the role of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a top-down control area, during pure information retention is debated, and the mechanisms regulating capacity are unknown. Here, we propose that a major role of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex in working memory is to boost parietal memory capacity. Furthermore, we formulate the boosting mechanism computationally in a biophysical cortical microcircuit model and derive a simple, explicit mathematical formula relating memory capacity to prefrontal and parietal model parameters. For physiologically realistic parameter values, lateral inhibition in the parietal cortex limits mnemonic capacity to a maximum of 2-7 items. However, at high loads inhibition can be counteracted by excitatory prefrontal input, thus boosting parietal capacity. Predictions from the model were confirmed in an fMRI study. Our results show that although memories are stored in the parietal cortex, interindividual differences in memory capacity are partly determined by the strength of prefrontal top-down control. The model provides a mechanistic framework for understanding top-down control of working memory and specifies two different contributions of prefrontal and parietal cortex to working memory capacity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)6802-6807
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number16
StatePublished - Apr 21 2009
Externally publishedYes


  • Computer model
  • Lateral inhibition
  • Parietal
  • Prefrontal
  • Short-term memory
  • fMRI

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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