The functional emergence of prefrontally-guided working memory systems in four- to eight-year-old children

Monica M Luciana, Charles A. Nelson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

491 Scopus citations


The neural processes that underlie the functional emergence of human cognitive functions, particularly those associated with the prefrontal cortex (PFC), are of growing interest to developmental psychologists and neuroscientists. Specifically, working memory functions have been correlated with PFC activity in nonhuman primates and adult humans but have not been extensively studied in children. We examined the developmental emergence of functions involved in working memory through the use of the Cambridge Neuropsychological Test Automated Battery (CANTAB), a computerized battery of nonverbal visually-presented neuropsychological tests designed to dissociate frontal from temporal lobe behavioral functions. Participants were normal children, aged 4-8 (n = 181) and a small group of young adults (n = 24) who completed measures of Spatial Memory Span, Spatial Working Memory, the Tower of London planning task, Visual Pattern and Spatial Recognition tasks, and a Set-Shifting task. Findings indicate a general age-related progression in ability levels on frontal lobe tasks, with 4-year-olds performing worse than 5- to 7-year-olds on all measures. Eight-year-olds are superior to younger children in their ability to solve complex problems but have not yet reached adult levels of performance on the most difficult items of the Tower of London and Spatial Working Memory tasks. We conclude that the development of working memory functions proceeds dimensionally, starting with refinement of basic perceptual and sensorimotor functions and culminating with the physiological maturation of widespread neural networks that integrate complex processing demands inherent to working memory tasks.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)273-293
Number of pages21
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 1 1998


  • Cognitive development
  • Executive function
  • Memory
  • Working memory


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