Executive n-back tasks for the neuropsychological assessment of working memory

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Abstract

Working memory (WM) has been defined as a cerebral function which allows us to maintain and manipulate information "online". One of the most widely used paradigms to assess WM is the n-back test. Despite its extensive application, some authors have questioned its capacity to assess the manipulation of WM load. The present study introduces a new version of the n-back test to carry out this assessment. We use functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) to evaluate prefrontal cortex (PFC) activation. The modified n-back requires monitoring of sequentially presented stimuli (in this case the days of the week). The target response relates to a stimulus which appears previously, from 0 to 2 items back, on the computer screen. Our data reveals that while modified and unmodified n-back activate the same regions of the left PFC, our modified 2-back version shows significantly higher activation in the left dorsolateral PFC (DLPFC) and the left frontal opercula. These results suggest that increased complexity in verbal WM tasks entail greater executive control, which would lead to an increase in cerebral blood flow to the areas associated with verbal WM. Therefore, an increase in the manipulation of WM load in verbal tasks reflects greater physiological activity in the left DLPFC and the left frontal opercula. The modified n-back test may also be incorporated into the armamentarium of valid instruments for the neuropsychological assessment of the maintenance and manipulation of verbal information in tasks requiring working memory.

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León-Domínguez, U., Martín-Rodríguez, J. F., & León-Carrión, J. (2015). Executive n-back tasks for the neuropsychological assessment of working memory. Behavioural Brain Research, 292, 167–173. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2015.06.002

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