Neural basis of protracted developmental changes in visuo-spatial working memory.
Developmental studies have shown that visuo-spatial working memory (VSWM) performance improves throughout childhood and adolescence into young adulthood. The neural basis of this protracted development is poorly understood. In this study, we used functional MRI (fMRI) to examine VSWM function in children, adolescents, and young adults, ages 7-22. Subjects performed a 2-back VSWM experiment that required dynamic storage and manipulation of spatial information. Accuracy and response latency on the VSWM task improved gradually, extending into young adulthood. Age-related increases in brain activation were observed in focal regions of the left and right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (including Broca's area), left premotor cortex, and left and right posterior parietal cortex. Multiple regression analysis was used to examine the relative contributions of age, accuracy, and response latency on activation. Our analysis showed that age was the most significant predictor of activation in these brain regions. These findings provide strong evidence for a process of protracted functional maturation of bilateral fronto-parietal neural networks involved in VSWM development. At least two neural systems involved in VSWM mature together: (i) a right hemisphere visuo-spatial attentional system, and (ii) a left hemisphere phonological storage and rehearsal system. These observations suggest that visually and verbally mediated mnemonic processes, and their neural representations, develop concurrently during childhood and adolescence and into young adulthood.