Voluntary control over prestimulus activity related to encoding

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Gruber, Matthias ; Otten, L. J. (2010)

A new development in our understanding of human long-term memory is that effective memory formation relies on neural activity just before an event. It is unknown whether such prestimulus activity is under voluntary control or a reflection of random fluctuations over time. In the present study, we addressed two issues: (i) whether prestimulus activity is influenced by an individual's motivation to encode, and (ii) at what point in time encoding-related activity emerges. Electrical brain activity was recorded while healthy male and female adults memorized series of words. Each word was preceded by a cue, which indicated the monetary reward that would be received if the following word was later remembered. Memory was tested after a short delay with a five-way recognition task to separate different sources of recognition. Electrical activity elicited by the reward cue predicted later memory of a word. Crucially, however, this was only observed when the incentive to memorize a word was high. Encoding-related activity preceded high reward words that were later recollected. This activity started shortly after cue onset and persisted until word onset. Prestimulus activity thus not only signals cue-related processing, but also an ensuing preparatory state. In contrast, reward-related activity was limited to the time period immediately following the reward cue. These findings indicate that engaging neural activity that benefits the encoding of an upcoming event is under voluntary control, reflecting a strategic preparatory state in anticipation of processing an event.
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