It is widely held that the frontal cortex plays a critical part in certain aspects of spatial and non-spatial working memory. One unresolved issue is whether there are functionally distinct subdivisions of the lateral frontal cortex that subserve different aspects of working memory. The present study used positron emission tomography (PET) to demonstrate that working memory processes within the human mid-dorsolateral and mid-ventrolateral frontal regions are organized according to the type of processing required rather than according to the nature (i.e. spatial or non-spatial), of the information being processed, as has been widely assumed. Two spatial working memory tasks were used which varied in the extent to which they required different executive processes. During a 'spatial span' task that required the subject to hold a sequence of five previously remembered locations in working memory a significant change in blood-flow was observed in the right mid-ventrolateral frontal cortex, but not in the anatomically and cytoarchitectonically distinct mid-dorsolateral frontal-lobe region. By contrast, during a '2-back' task that required the subject to continually update and manipulate an ongoing sequence of locations within working memory, significant blood flow increases were observed in both mid-ventrolateral and mid-dorsolateral frontal regions. When the two working memory tasks were compared directly, the one that emphasized manipulation of information within working memory yielded significantly greater activity in the right mid-dorsolateral frontal cortex only. This dissociation provides unambiguous evidence that the mid-dorsolateral and mid-ventrolateral frontal cortical areas make distinct functional contributions to spatial working memory and corresponds with a fractionation of working memory processes in psychological terms.
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