The irrelevant speech effect and working memory load

Gisselgard, J., Petersson, K. M., & Ingvar, M. (2004). The irrelevant speech effect and working memory load. NeuroImage, 22, 1107-1116. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2004.02.031.
Irrelevant speech impairs the immediate serial recall of visually presented material. Previously, we have shown that the irrelevant speech effect (ISE) was associated with a relative decrease of regional blood flow in cortical regions subserving the verbal working memory, in particular the superior temporal cortex. In this extension of the previous study, the working memory load was increased and an increased activity as a response to irrelevant speech was noted in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. We suggest that the two studies together provide some basic insights as to the nature of the irrelevant speech effect. Firstly, no area in the brain can be ascribed as the single locus of the irrelevant speech effect. Instead, the functional neuroanatomical substrate to the effect can be characterized in terms of changes in networks of functionally interrelated areas. Secondly, the areas that are sensitive to the irrelevant speech effect are also generically activated by the verbal working memory task itself. Finally, the impact of irrelevant speech and related brain activity depends on working memory load as indicated by the differences between the present and the previous study. From a brain perspective, the irrelevant speech effect may represent a complex phenomenon that is a composite of several underlying mechanisms, which depending on the working memory load, include top-down inhibition as well as recruitment of compensatory support and control processes. We suggest that, in the low-load condition, a selection process by an inhibitory top-down modulation is sufficient, whereas in the high-load condition, at or above working memory span, auxiliary adaptive cognitive resources are recruited as compensation
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