To assess the role of prefrontal cortex in retrieval and address the controversy about whether prefrontal retrieval operations are engaged only following successful retrieval, we recorded event-related brain potentials during two recognition tests with differing demands on retrieval effort. Both tests included object drawings that were (1) identical to those studied, (2) the same but with altered aspect ratios, and (3) previously unseen. Instructions were to respond 'old' only if drawings were not modified (specific test) or regardless of modifications (general test). Frontal potentials were enhanced during the specific relative to the general test for all three types of drawings. We conclude that these potentials reflected differential engagement of strategic retrieval, that this function relied on left prefrontal cortex, and that it was not contingent on successful retrieval.
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