How Working Memory Works

Grocery lists. Directions. People's names. How do we remember this stuff?

Long-term memory gives us a sense of identity and a past to draw upon. Working memory, on the other hand, is what allows us to remember things over short periods of time and complete minute-to-minute tasks like keeping track of what’s being said in a conversation or receiving and following directions to the nearest pharmacy.

NYU Abu Dhabi’s Sreenivasan Lab is researching the intricacies of working memory and attention, which could help scientists understand cognitive dysfunction and develop more targeted therapies to treat mental illnesses.

Kartik Sreenivasan, the lab’s principal investigator, has been fascinated by working memory since his undergraduate days researching the neurobiology of schizophrenia patients. “Working memory is at the core of everything we do cognitively as humans and it’s one of the core elements of cognitive dysfunction in schizophrenia and many other mental illnesses,” he said.

Lack of data on how working memory functions in individuals without mental illnesses prompted Sreenivasan to focus his research on how the brain implements working memory along with its capacities and limitations.

Reconstructing Memories

The lab uses non-invasive Magnetoencephalography (MEG) to measure the magnetic fields that are generated by the electrical activity in a brain while Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) is used to detect changes in blood flow, which provides researchers with extremely detailed images of brain activity when performing memory-related cognitive tasks.

Reconstructing memories is a key component of the research. Sreenivasan and his team study the neural signatures of working memory to help them reconstruct what a subject may be remembering when given a specific task. It might sound like it’s possible to extract any information from a person’s memory, he said, but that’s a bit far-fetched at the moment.

“We are trying to understand what’s happening in your brain when you remember something,” he explained. Working memory training is gaining traction and advances in the field could improve programs to enhance cognition and slow cognitive decline with age, Sreenivasan said.

“I think there’s been a mini revolution in the field of working memory over the last five to ten years and it’s great to be a part of that right now.”