Research on the neural basis of working memory (WM) has generally focused on neocortical regions; comparatively little is known about the role of subcortical structures. There is growing evidence that the basal ganglia are involved in WM, but their contribution to different component processes of WM is poorly understood. We examined the temporal dynamics of basal ganglia response and connectivity during the encoding, maintenance and response phases of a Sternberg WM task. During the encoding and maintenance phases, WM-load-dependent activation was observed in the left anterior caudate, anterior putamen and globus pallidus; activation in the right anterior caudate was observed only during the maintenance phase. During the response phase, the basal ganglia were equally active in both the high-load and low-load WM conditions. Caudate and putamen activations were primarily localized to the (rostral) associative parts of the basal ganglia, consistent with the putative role of these regions in cognitive processing. Effective connectivity analyses revealed increased WM-load-dependent interaction of the left anterior caudate with the left posterior parietal cortex during all three phases of the task; with the visual association cortex, including the fusiform gyrus and inferior temporal gyrus, only during the encoding phase; with the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex during the encoding and maintenance phases; with the pre-supplementary motor area during the maintenance and response phases; and with the dorsolateral prefrontal and anterior cingulate cortices only during the response phase. Taken together with known neuroanatomy of the basal ganglia, these results suggest that the anterior caudate helps to link signals in distinct functional networks during different phases of the WM task. Our study offers new insight into the integrative and adaptive role of the basal ganglia in higher cognitive function. © 2006 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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