Limitations in the performance of working memory (WM) tasks have been characterized in terms of the number of items retained (capacity) and in terms of the precision with which the information is retained. The neural mechanisms behind these limitations are still unclear. Here we used a biological constrained computational model to study the capacity and precision of visuospatial WM. The model consists of two connected networks of spiking neurons. One network is responsible for storage of information. The other provides a nonselective excitatory input to the storage network. Simulations showed that this excitation boost could temporarily increase storage capacity but also predicted that this would be associated with a decrease in precision of the memory. This prediction was subsequently tested in a behavioral (38 participants) and fMRI (22 participants) experiment. The behavioral results confirmed the trade-off effect, and the fMRI results suggest that a frontal region might be engaged in the trial-by-trial control of WM performance. The average effects were small, but individuals differed in the amount of trade-off, and these differences correlated with the frontal activation. These results support a two-module model of WM where performance is determined both by storage capacity and by top–down influence, which can vary on a trial-by-trial basis, affecting both the capacity and precision of WM.

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