The neural basis of activity-silent memory storage

   School of Psychology

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  Dr Paul Muhle-Karbe  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

About the project

Working memory (WM) describes the ability to maintain and manipulate information that is no longer available in the environment. It provides a flexible mental workspace that scaffolds most higher cognitive functions. However, despite its fundamental role, little consensus exists about the brain mechanisms that underpin WM.

Traditionally, WM has been thought to rely on active maintenance of sensory representations, implemented via persistent neocortical activity. However, brain activity often returns to baseline levels during memory delay periods, suggesting that active maintenance is not essential. Consequently, new theories have been developed proposing that WM could be achieved via synaptic weight changes that are not reflected in brain activity but shape how the brain processes new input (e.g., Stokes, 2015). In support of this view, recent studies have shown that impulse stimuli can reinstate otherwise no-longer measurable memory signals (e.g., Muhle-Karbe et al., 2021). This is similar to the principle of active sensing, where the contours of a hidden structure are inferred from changes in “echoes” evoked by a constant impulse. 

An alternative explanation for such activity silent memory maintenance is the recruitment of episodic memory systems (Beuckers et al., 2021). From this perspective, maintenance does not rely on short-lived traces in cortical areas processing stimulus features, but on durable traces in the hippocampus. Distinguishing between these accounts will have great impact upon longstanding debates on the architecture of memory systems and could also open the door toward new translational research on sources of memory deficits (e.g., in ageing). At present, however, it is impossible to adjudicate between these accounts, as the neural sources of reactivated memory signals remain unknown.

Research objectives

 This PhD project will leverage multimodal brain recordings to fill this gap and reveal the neural sources of reactivated memories. Human subjects will perform WM tasks, while their brain activity is measured with simultaneous EEG-fMRI recordings, and high-contrast visual impulses are presented to reactivate activity-silent memory signals. In previous studies, we have established that across-trial variance in EEG impulse responses tracks changes in memory precision. Here, we will link this variance with BOLD signals using advanced signal processing and machine learning approaches to reveal brain areas whose activity states predict the magnitude of memory reactivation.

The integration of memory signals in space and time will close a fundamental gap in theories of human memory and provide a rich testbed for translational research. Following the initial proof of principle, the candidate will have the opportunity to develop this line of research into new directions, e.g., by testing if changes in task design can shift the neural sources of memory reactivation or by applying the paradigm to the study of memory deficits.


Research team and centre 

The project brings together expertise in memory research, neural pattern analyses (Dr Paul Muhle-Karbe), multimodal brain imaging (Dr Karen Mullinger), advanced signal processing, and translational research (Prof Andrew Bagshaw). The student will receive in-depth training in concepts from Psychology, Neuroscience, and Machine Learning, allowing them to develop a wide range of valuable skills for a career in academia or data science. The training will moreover benefit from the vibrant research community and world-class infrastructure at the Centre for Human Brain Health in Birmingham.


Key references

Beukers, A. O., Buschman, T. J., Cohen, J. D., & Norman, K. A. (2021). Is activity silent working memory simply episodic memory?. Trends in Cognitive Sciences25(4), 284-293.

Muhle-Karbe, P. S., Myers, N. E., & Stokes, M. G. (2021). A hierarchy of functional states in working memory. Journal of Neuroscience41(20), 4461-4475.

Stokes, M. G. (2015). ‘Activity-silent’working memory in prefrontal cortex: a dynamic coding framework. Trends in cognitive sciences19(7), 394-405.

Important note:

Before submitting an application, interested candidates are encouraged to contact Dr Paul Muhle-Karbe with the following materials ([Email Address Removed]]) with the subject "MIBTP studentship". Candidates with competitive materials will be supported to submit an application to the University of Birmingham.

- CV

- Brief personal statement

- Transcript of grades

- Reference letter

For more information, please visit:

Biological Sciences (4) Computer Science (8) Psychology (31)

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 About the Project