Cognitive abilities, such as working memory, differ among people; however, individuals also vary in their own day-to-day cognitive performance. One potential source of cognitive variability may be fluctuations in the functional organization of neural systems. The degree to which the organization of these functional networks is optimized may relate to the effective cognitive functioning of the individual. Here we specifically examine how changes in the organization of large-scale networks measured via resting state functional connectivity MRI and graph theory track changes in working memory capacity.
Twenty-two participants performed a test of working memory capacity and then underwent resting-state fMRI. Seventeen subjects repeated the protocol three weeks later. We applied graph theoretic techniques to measure network organization on 34 brain regions of interest (ROI). Network modularity, which measures the level of integration and segregation across sub-networks, and small-worldness, which measures global network connection efficiency, both predicted individual differences in memory capacity; however, only modularity predicted intra-individual variation across the two sessions. Partial correlations controlling for the component of working memory that was stable across sessions revealed that modularity was almost entirely associated with the variability of working memory at each session. Analyses of specific sub-networks and individual circuits were unable to consistently account for working memory capacity variability.
The results suggest that the intrinsic functional organization of an a priori defined cognitive control network measured at rest provides substantial information about actual cognitive performance. The association of network modularity to the variability in an individual's working memory capacity suggests that the organization of this network into high connectivity within modules and sparse connections between modules may reflect effective signaling across brain regions, perhaps through the modulation of signal or the suppression of the propagation of noise.