Cognitive operationsrequiring working memory rely on the activity of neurons in areas of the association cortex, most prominently the lateral prefrontal cortex. Human imaging and animal neurophysiological studies indicate that this activity is shaped by learning, though much is unknown about how much training alters neural activity and cortical organization. Results from non-human primates demonstrate that prior to any training in cognitive tasks, prefrontal neurons respond to stimuli, exhibit persistent activity after their offset, and differentiate between matching and non-matching stimuli presented in sequence. A number of important changes also occur after training in a working memory task. More neurons are recruited by the stimuli and exhibit higher firing rates, particularly during the delay period. Operant stimuli that need to be recognized in order to perform the task elicit higher overall rates of responses, while the variability of individual discharges and correlation of discharges between neurons decrease after training. New information is incorporated in the activity of a small population of neuronshighly specialized for the task and in a larger population of neurons that exhibit modest task related information, while information about other aspects of stimuli remains present in neuronal activity. Despite such changes, the relative selectivity of the dorsal and ventral aspect of the lateral prefrontal cortex is not radically altered with regard to spatial and non-spatial stimuli after training. Collectively, these results provide insights on the nature and limits of cortical plasticity mediating cognitive tasks.
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