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Meeting of minds: the medial frontal cortex and social cognition

Key Points

  • Social cognitive neuroscience is concerned with the representation of the self, the perception of social groups (such as race and gender stereotypes), and the ability to make inferences about the knowledge, beliefs and desires of the self and of others (known as theory of mind).

  • The results of brain imaging studies have implicated a network of brain regions in social cognition, in which the medial prefrontal cortex (including the anterior cingulate cortex) has a special role.

  • Anatomical studies of the medial prefrontal cortex have revealed systematic differences in connectivity along an axis moving from dorsal through rostral to ventral regions around the genu of the corpus callosum. Functional imaging studies have confirmed this distinction, revealing a progression from motor regions to cognitive and emotional regions.

  • Social cognition tasks engage the central region of this axis, the anterior rostral medial frontal cortex (arMFC). The more dorsal region (posterior rostral MFC, prMFC) is involved in action monitoring and the updating of the predicted value of actions, whereas the more ventral region (orbital MFC) is involved in monitoring reward and punishment, and in the updating of the predicted value of outcomes.

  • Activity in the arMFC is elicited by various social cognitive tasks that have in common the need to reflect on mental states of the self or the mental states of others, including both thoughts and feelings.

  • There is a systematic increase in the complexity or abstractness of representations along an axis from the most superior and dorsal region to the most anterior and rostral region of the MFC. Objective properties of states such as pain are represented in the most dorsal region. The prMFC represents subjective properties, which are re-representations of the objective properties of states. Finally, in the arMFC the subjective properties of states are re-represented, creating metacognitive representations that allow us to think about the subjective states of the self and other people.

  • These meta-cognitive representations are necessary for high level social interactions such as those involving trust, in which we need to have not only self-knowledge and knowledge of others, but also reflected self-knowledge (that is, knowledge of what others think about us).

Abstract

Social interaction is a cornerstone of human life, yet the neural mechanisms underlying social cognition are poorly understood. Recently, research that integrates approaches from neuroscience and social psychology has begun to shed light on these processes, and converging evidence from neuroimaging studies suggests a unique role for the medial frontal cortex. We review the emerging literature that relates social cognition to the medial frontal cortex and, on the basis of anatomical and functional characteristics of this brain region, propose a theoretical model of medial frontal cortical function relevant to different aspects of social cognitive processing.

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Figure 1: Anatomical studies of the medial frontal cortex reveal two major axes of connectivity.
Figure 2: Functional divisions of the medial prefrontal cortex.
Figure 3: Mapping of medial frontal cortex activations observed during action monitoring, social cognition and outcome monitoring.

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Acknowledgements

We are grateful to D. Passingham, J. Mitchell, K. Ochsner and an anonymous reviewer for their comments on early versions of this review.

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Glossary

Talairach coordinates

Talairach coordinates provide a standardized method for describing the location of activations in the brain in three-dimensional space. Talairach space comprises x, y and z coordinates (represented as x,y,z): x denotes left versus right, y denotes rostral (anterior) versus caudal (posterior), and z denotes dorsal (superior) versus ventral (inferior). The Montreal Neurological Institute's system uses the same metric space, but their coordinates are based on a slightly larger and more representative brain.

Stroop colour-naming task

The Stroop task is commonly used to investigate response conflict. Participants view words presented in colours (for example, red and blue) that are either compatible (red written in red) or incompatible (red written in blue) with the word meaning. On incompatible trials, participants must inhibit the prepotent tendency to read the word's text in order to correctly report the colour of the word.

Response inhibition

Response inhibition refers to the process of withholding a habitual response when changing task demands require an alternative response. Response inhibition is a crucial component of behavioural regulation that has been ascribed as a function of the posterior rostral ACC by much research, although it probably involves the coordination of several neural systems.

Event-related potential

(ERP). An electrical signal produced by summated postsynaptic potentials of cortical neurons in response to a discrete event, such as a stimulus or response in an experimental task. Typically recorded from the scalp in humans, ERPs can be measured with extremely high temporal resolution and can be used to track rapid, real-time changes in neural activity.

Blood oxygen level dependent signal

(BOLD signal). fMRI measures local changes in the proportion of oxygenated blood in the brain; the blood oxygen level dependent, or BOLD, signal. This proportion changes in response to neural activity. Therefore, the BOLD signal, or haemodynamic response, indicates the location and magnitude of neural activity.

Working memory

Working memory refers to a set of processes involved in rehearsing and manipulating information that has either just been experienced or just been retrieved from long-term memory, often in the service of goal-directed behaviour. Working memory functions are typically associated with activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

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Amodio, D., Frith, C. Meeting of minds: the medial frontal cortex and social cognition. Nat Rev Neurosci 7, 268–277 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn1884

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