Probing the early development of visual working memory capacity with functional near-infrared spectroscopy

Aaron T. Buss, Nicholas Fox, David A. Boas, John P. Spencer

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62 Citations (Scopus)


Visual working memory (VWM) is a core cognitive system with a highly limited capacity. The present study is the first to examine VWM capacity limits in early development using functional neuroimaging. We recorded optical neuroimaging data while 3- and 4-year-olds completed a change detection task where they detected changes in the shapes of objects after a brief delay. Near-infrared sources and detectors were placed over the following 10-20 positions: F3 and F5 in left frontal cortex, F4 and F6 in right frontal cortex, P3 and P5 in left parietal cortex, and P4 and P6 in right parietal cortex. The first question was whether we would see robust task-specific activation of the frontal-parietal network identified in the adult fMRI literature. This was indeed the case: three left frontal channels and 11 of 12 parietal channels showed a statistically robust difference between the concentration of oxygenated and deoxygenated hemoglobin following the presentation of the sample array. Moreover, four channels in the left hemisphere near P3, P5, and F5 showed a robust increase as the working memory load increased from 1 to 3 items. Notably, the hemodynamic response did not asymptote at 1-2 items as expected from previous fMRI studies with adults. Finally, 4-year-olds showed a more robust parietal response relative to 3-year-olds, and an increasing sensitivity to the memory load manipulation. These results demonstrate that fNIRS is an effective tool to study the neural processes that underlie the early development of VWM capacity.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)314-325
Number of pages12
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2014


  • Development
  • Functional neuroimaging
  • Near-infrared spectroscopy
  • Visual working memory
  • Working memory capacity

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