Restoration of fMRI decodability does not imply latent working memory states

29 Sep 2017

Recent imaging studies have challenged the prevailing view that working memory is mediated by sustained neural activity. Using machine learning methods to reconstruct memory content, these studies found that previously diminished representations can be restored by retrospective cueing or other forms of stimulation. These findings have been interpreted as evidence for an activity-silent working memory state that can be reactivated dependent on task demands. Here, we test the validity of this conclusion by formulating a neural process model of working memory based on sustained activity and using this model to emulate a spatial recall task with retro-cueing. The simulation reproduces both behavioral and fMRI results previously taken as evidence for latent states, in particular the restoration of spatial reconstruction quality following an informative cue. Our results demonstrate that recovery of the decodability of an imaging signal does not provide compelling evidence for an activity-silent working memory state.