One of the enduring mysteries of brain function concerns the process of cognitive control. How does complex and seemingly wilful behaviour emerge from interactions between millions of neurons? This has long been suspected to depend on the prefrontal cortex — the neocortex at the anterior end of the brain — but now we are beginning to uncover its neural basis. Nearly all intended behaviour is learned and so depends on a cognitive system that can acquire and implement the ‘rules of the game’ needed to achieve a given goal in a given situation. Studies indicate that the prefrontal cortex is central in this process. It provides an infrastructure for synthesizing a diverse range of information that lays the foundation for the complex forms of behaviour observed in primates.
The prefrontal cortex is important for cognitive control, the ability to orchestrate brain processes along a common theme.
Neurophysiological and behavioural studies indicate that prefrontal neurons may participate in neural ensembles that represent task contingencies and rules.
The formation of task representations in the prefrontal cortex may depend on midbrain dopamine neurons that signal when plasticity should occur.
Prefrontal neurons can hold information ‘online’ temporarily. This is critical for bridging temporal gaps between events, actions and consequences, and for resisting distractions.
Prefrontal task representations provide bias signals to other brain structures to guide the flow of activity along task-relevant pathways.
With practice, task-relevant pathways can be established in the posterior neocortex independently of the prefrontal cortex.
This theory of prefrontal function complements and extends previous theories. It suggests mechanisms that provide a foundation for the complex forms of behaviour observed in primates.
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I thank Wael Asaad, Jonathan Cohen, Peter Dayan, John Duncan, Howard Eichenbaum, David Freedman, Tomaso Poggio, Maximilian Riesenhuber and Marlene Wicherski for valuable comments and discussions.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF LIFE SCIENCES
Brain signals that convey knowledge derived from prior experience rather than sensory stimulation.
- GOAL-DIRECTED BEHAVIOUR
Behaviour directed toward attainment of a future state (for example, obtaining a graduate degree).
- INTERNAL STATES
Brain information not directly related to a sensory input or motor output; for example, homeostatic information such as hunger, thirst or other motivational influences.
- TASK CONTINGENCIES
The logical structure of a given task (for example, if the light is green, cross the street).
- LIMBIC STRUCTURES
A collection of subcortical structures important for processing memory and emotional information. Prominent structures include the hippocampus and amygdala.
- MULTIMODAL RESPONSES
Neural activity elicited by more than one sensory modality.
A rapid, ballistic eye movement from one point of gaze to another.
- PREPOTENT RESPONSES
Reflexive actions, either innate or well established through a great deal of experience.
- WORKING MEMORY
The representation of items held in consciousness during experiences or after retrieval of memories. Short-lasting and associated with active rehearsal or manipulation of information.
- INFERIOR TEMPORAL CORTEX
A neocortical region responsible for high-level analysis of form information.
- POSTERIOR PARIETAL CORTEX
A region of the visual cortex thought to be involved in visuospatial, visuomotor and attentional processes.
- BASAL GANGLIA
A collection of interconnected subcortical structures reciprocally connected to the prefrontal cortex.
A structure overlying the pons that is important for sensorimotor coordination.
- ANTERIOR CINGULATE CORTEX
A structure lying close to, and connected with, the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in error detection.
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