Changes in task performance and frontal cortex activation within and over sessions during the n-back task

Michael K. Yeung, Yvonne M.Y. Han

Research output: Journal article publicationJournal articleAcademic researchpeer-review


The n-back task is a popular paradigm for studying neurocognitive processing at varying working memory loads. Although much is known about the effects of load on behavior and neural activation during n-back performance, the temporal dynamics of such effects remain unclear. Here, we investigated the within- and between-session stability and consistency of task performance and frontal cortical activation during the n-back task using functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS). Forty healthy young adults performed the 1-back and 3-back conditions three times per condition. They then undertook identical retest sessions 3 weeks later (M = 21.2 days, SD = 0.9). Over the course of the task, activation in the participants' frontopolar, dorsomedial, dorsolateral, ventrolateral, and posterolateral frontal cortices was measured with fNIRS. We found significantly improved working memory performance (difference between 1-back and 3-back accuracies) over time both within and between sessions. All accuracy and reaction time measures exhibited good to excellent consistency within and across sessions. Additionally, changes in frontal oxyhemoglobin (HbO) and deoxyhemoglobin (HbR) concentration were maintained over time across timescales, except that load-dependent (3-back > 1-back) HbO changes, particularly in the ventrolateral PFC, diminished over separate sessions. The consistency of fNIRS measures varied greatly, with changes in 3-back dorsolateral and ventrolateral HbO demonstrating fair-to-good consistency both within and between sessions. Overall, this study clarified the temporal dynamics of task performance and frontal activation during the n-back task. The findings revealed the neural mechanisms underlying the change in n-back task performance over time and have practical implications for future n-back research.

Original languageEnglish
Article number3363
Pages (from-to)3363
Number of pages1
JournalScientific Reports
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 27 Feb 2023

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


Dive into the research topics of 'Changes in task performance and frontal cortex activation within and over sessions during the n-back task'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this