The contents of working memory must be maintained in the face of distraction, but updated when appropriate. To manage these competing demands of stability and flexibility, maintained representations in working memory are complemented by distinct gating mechanisms that selectively transmit information into and out of memory stores. The operations of such dopamine-dependent gating systems in the midbrain and striatum and their complementary dopamine-dependent memory maintenance operations in the cortex may therefore be dissociable. If true, selective increases in cortical dopamine tone should preferentially enhance maintenance over gating mechanisms. To test this hypothesis, tolcapone, a catechol-O-methyltransferase inhibitor that preferentially increases cortical dopamine tone, was administered in a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, within-subject fashion to 49 participants who completed a hierarchical working memory task that varied maintenance and gating demands. Tolcapone improved performance in a condition with higher maintenance requirements and reduced gating demands, reflected in a reduction in the slope of RTs across the distribution. Resting-state fMRI data demonstrated that the degree to which tolcapone improved performance in individual participants correlated with increased connectivity between a region important for first-order stimulus response mappings (left dorsal premotor cortex) and cortical areas implicated in visual working memory, including the intraparietal sulcus and fusiform gyrus. Together, these results provide evidence that augmenting cortical dopamine tone preferentially improves working memory maintenance.

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Author notes


These authors contributed equally to this study.