Motivation and cognitive control in the human prefrontal cortex

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The prefrontal cortex (PFC) subserves cognitive control, that is, the ability to select thoughts or actions in relation to internal goals. Little is known, however, about how the PFC combines motivation and the selection processes underlying cognitive control. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging in humans and found that the medial and lateral PFC have a parallel hierarchical organization from posterior to anterior regions for motivating and selecting behaviors, respectively. Moreover, using functional connectivity analyses, we found that functional interactions in this parallel system from medial to lateral PFC regions convey motivational incentives on the basis of rewards/penalties regulating the differential engagement of lateral PFC regions in top-down selection. Our results indicate that motivation is a dissociable function, reveal how the PFC integrates motivation and cognitive control in the service of decision-making, and have major implications for current theories of prefrontal executive function.

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Figure 1: Behavioral protocol.
Figure 2: Cognitive control in the prefrontal cortex.
Figure 3: Motivational processes in the prefrontal cortex.
Figure 4: Motivational effects on reaction times according to control demands.
Figure 5: Motivational activations in medial and lateral frontal regions according to control demands.
Figure 6: Diagram of effective connectivity between frontal regions.
Figure 7: Factorial analyses of medial frontal activations according to cognitive factors.
Figure 8: Variations of effective connectivity with response conflict.


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We thank J.-L. Anton, B. Nazarian and M. Roth at the Magnetic Resonance Imaging Center in Hospital La Timone for MRI facilities and technical assistance. We also thank C. Summerfield and E. Procyk for helpful comments on an earlier version of the manuscript. This work was supported by a European Young Investigator Award and a Prize from the Bettencourt-Schueller Foundation to E.K.

Author information

F.K. and E.K. designed the experiments. F.K. and S.C. conducted the experiments. F.K. analyzed the data. E.K. supervised the project and wrote the paper.

Correspondence to Etienne Koechlin.

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Supplementary Figures 1–3, Supplementary Data and Supplementary Methods (PDF 4304 kb)

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Kouneiher, F., Charron, S. & Koechlin, E. Motivation and cognitive control in the human prefrontal cortex. Nat Neurosci 12, 939–945 (2009) doi:10.1038/nn.2321

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