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Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex GABA Concentration in Humans Predicts Working Memory Load Processing Capacity.

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The discovery of neural mechanisms of working memory (WM) would significantly enhance our understanding of complex human behaviors and guide treatment development for WM-related impairments found in neuropsychiatric conditions and aging. Although the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) has long been considered critical for WM, we still know little about the neural elements and pathways within the DLPFC that support WM in humans. In this study, we tested whether an individual's DLPFC gamma-aminobutryic acid (GABA) content predicts individual differences in WM task performance using a novel behavioral approach. Twenty-three healthy adults completed a task that measured the unique contribution of major WM components (memory load, maintenance, and distraction resistance) to performance. This was done to address the possibility that components have differing GABA dependencies and the failure to parse WM into components would lead to missing true associations with GABA. The subjects then had their DLPFC GABA content measured by single-voxel proton magnetic spectroscopy. We found that individuals with lower DLPFC GABA showed greater performance degradation with higher load, accounting for 31% of variance, p(corrected) = 0.015. This relationship was component, neurochemical, and brain region specific. DLPFC GABA content did not predict performance sensitivity to other components tested; DLPFC glutamate + glutamine and visual cortical GABA content did not predict load sensitivity. These results confirm the involvement of DLPFC GABA in WM load processing in humans and implicate factors controlling DLPFC GABA content in the neural mechanisms of WM and its impairments.

Significance statement

This study demonstrated for the first time that the amount of gamma-aminobutryic acid (GABA), the major inhibitory neurotransmitter of the brain, in an individual's prefrontal cortex predicts working memory (WM) task performance. Given that WM is required for many of the most characteristic cognitive and behavioral capabilities in humans, this finding could have a significant impact on our understanding of the neural basis of complex human behavior. Furthermore, this finding suggests that efforts to preserve or increase brain GABA levels could be fruitful in remediating WM-related deficits associated with neuropsychiatric conditions.

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