A dominant theory, based on electrophysiological and lesion evidence from nonhuman primate studies, posits that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) stores and maintains working memory (WM) representations. Yet, neuroimaging studies have consistently failed to translate these results to humans; these studies normally find that neural activity persists in the human precentral sulcus (PCS) during WM delays. Here, we attempt to resolve this discrepancy. To test the degree to which dlPFC is necessary for WM, we compared the performance of patients with dlPFC lesions and neurologically healthy controls on a memory-guided saccade task that was used in the monkey studies to measure spatial WM. We found that dlPFC damage only impairs the accuracy of memory-guided saccades if the damage impacts the PCS; lesions to dorsolateral dlPFC that spare the PCS have no effect on WM. These results identify the necessary subregion of the frontal cortex for WM and specify how this influential animal model of human cognition must be revised.

Significance Statement

High-level cognition depends on working memory (WM) as a critical building block, and many symptoms of psychiatric disorders may be the direct result of impaired WM. Canonical theory posits a critical role for the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) in WM based on studies of nonhuman primates. However, we find that spatial WM in humans is intact after dlPFC damage unless it impacts the more caudal PCS. Therefore, the human dlPFC is not necessary for spatial WM and highlights the need for careful translation of animal models of human cognition.