Prefrontal activation and pupil dilation during n-back task performance: A combined fNIRS and pupillometry study

Michael K. Yeung, Tsz L. Lee, Yvonne M.Y. Han, Agnes S. Chan (Corresponding Author)

Research output: Journal article publicationJournal articleAcademic researchpeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)


The n-back task is one of the most commonly used working memory (WM) paradigms in cognitive neuroscience. Converging evidence suggests activation in the lateral prefrontal cortex (PFC) and pupil dilation [a proxy for locus coeruleus (LC) activation] during this task. However, it remains unclear whether the lateral PFC and the LC are functionally associated during n-back task performance. This study's aim was to examine the relationship between changes in lateral PFC activity and the pupil diameter and to evaluate the effect of WM load on such relationship during the n-back task. Thirty-nine healthy young adults (10 males, 29 females) underwent a number n-back paradigm with 0- and 3-back conditions. Their prefrontal hemodynamics and changes in pupil size during task performance were simultaneously measured using a 16-channel functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) device and a wearable eye tracker. Young adults exhibited significant activation in the bilateral lateral PFC and significant increases in pupil size when the WM load was high (i.e., 3-back) but not low (i.e., 0-back) compared with the resting period. Interestingly, significant positive correlations were found between changes in lateral PFC activity and pupil size during the 0-back task only. These correlations tended to be stronger during the 0-back than the 3-back condition. Thus, the functional relationship between the lateral PFC and the LC may vary at different load levels during the n-back task. Our findings have important implications for neuropsychiatric research and support concurrent fNIRS and pupillometric measurements for a better understanding of the mechanisms underlying WM processing.

Original languageEnglish
Article number107954
Publication statusPublished - 20 Aug 2021


  • n-back
  • Near-infrared spectroscopy
  • Prefrontal cortex
  • Pupillometry
  • Working memory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience

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