Abstract Attention can be allocated toward mental representations in working memory also after the initial encoding of information has been completed. It was shown that focusing on only one item within working memory transfers this representation into a protected state, reducing its susceptibility to interference by incoming signals. The present study investigated the nature of this retroactive cue (retro-cue) benefit by means of oscillatory activity in the EEG. In a working memory task with a retro-cue indicating one, two or three memory representations as relevant and a block-wise distractor display presented after the retro-cue, participants had to remember the orientation of a colored bar. On behavioral level, we found that the interfering effect of the distractor display on memory performance could be prevented when a retro-cue reduced the number of attended representations in working memory. However, only the one-item retro-cue led to an overall increase in task performance compared to a condition without a retro-cue. The neural basis of this special representational status was investigated by means of oscillatory parameters in the EEG and a clustering approach on level of the independent components (ICs) in the signal. The retroactive reduction of attended working memory representations was reflected in a suppression of alpha power over right parietal and parieto-occipital sites. In addition, we found that an IC cluster representing oscillatory activity in the mu/beta range (10–12 Hz and 20–24 Hz) with a source in sensorimotor cortex revealed a power suppression already prior to the memory probe following the one-item retro-cue. This suggests that the retro-cue benefit results in large parts from the possibility to focus attention on one particular item in working memory and initiate motor planning processes already ahead of the probe stimulus indicating the respective response. Highlights The retro-cue benefit is related to a head start of response planning. This mechanism can be used when the desired response is obvious after a retro-cue. Contralateral mu/beta suppression reflects the response planning head start. The source of mu/beta suppression is located in sensorimotor cortex.
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