Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
It is established that recall of an item from a list of sequentially presented items is sensitive to the item's position in the memorized list. However, little is known about the brain mechanisms that mediate these serial position effects. Studies of working memory retrieval using event-related potentials report amplitude reductions during retrieval (auditory cortical N100, neocortical late positive wave [LPW]) as memory load increases. We tested the hypothesis that N100 and LPW amplitudes to probes are also affected by serial position. Eventrelated potentials were recorded from subjects performing an auditory working memory task. A set of one or five digits was memorized, then subjects classified a probe digit as either present or absent from the memory set. A control task was also given. Amplitudes of the N100 and LPW were reduced in the 5-item versus the 1-item set. In the 5-item set N100 amplitude was significantly larger for the initial (1st) serial position, relative to Positions 2–5, while linear increases in LPW amplitude were seen across serial positions (5th > 1st position). A control task without memorization showed no N100 or LPW amplitude changes with set size or serial position. The findings reveal that the N100 and LPW are influenced differently by serial position during working memory retrieval: N100 shows a primacy effect and LPW demonstrates a recency effect. The results suggest that primacy and recency effects may be mediated by different brain regions at different times during memory retrieval.