Event-related rTMS at encoding affects differently deep and shallow memory traces.
The "level of processing" effect is a classical finding of the experimental psychology of memory. Actually, the depth of information processing at encoding predicts the accuracy of the subsequent episodic memory performance. When the incoming stimuli are analyzed in terms of their meaning (semantic, or deep, encoding), the memory performance is superior with respect to the case in which the same stimuli are analyzed in terms of their perceptual features (shallow encoding). As suggested by previous neuroimaging studies and by some preliminary findings with transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), the left prefrontal cortex may play a role in semantic processing requiring the allocation of working memory resources. However, it still remains unclear whether deep and shallow encoding share or not the same cortical networks, as well as how these networks contribute to the "level of processing" effect. To investigate the brain areas casually involved in this phenomenon, we applied event-related repetitive TMS (rTMS) during deep (semantic) and shallow (perceptual) encoding of words. Retrieval was subsequently tested without rTMS interference. RTMS applied to the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) abolished the beneficial effect of deep encoding on memory performance, both in terms of accuracy (decrease) and reaction times (increase). Neither accuracy nor reaction times were instead affected by rTMS to the right DLPFC or to an additional control site excluded by the memory process (vertex). The fact that online measures of semantic processing at encoding were unaffected suggests that the detrimental effect on memory performance for semantically encoded items took place in the subsequent consolidation phase. These results highlight the specific causal role of the left DLPFC among the wide left-lateralized cortical network engaged by long-term memory, suggesting that it probably represents a crucial node responsible for the improved memory performance induced by semantic processing.