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Hierarchical Cognitive Control Deficits Following Damage to the Human Frontal Lobe

An abstract brain illustration made of blue gradient line in a white background.


David Badre, Joshua Hoffman, Jeffrey W. Cooney and Mark D'Esposito

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Cognitive control is the mechanism at play when we make decisions about abstract actions. An example of this control of action could involve abstract goals, such as deciding whether to email or call a friend, accompanied by the concrete motor programs, such as selecting appropriate sequences of keystrokes to type the email (or dial the number on the phone). The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is a major player when we exercise cognitive control, as it is associated with the ability (for both humans and primates) to internally guide behavior in accordance with goals, plans, and broader contextual knowledge. Neuroimaging data presented from previous studies has suggested that the organization of brain regions involved with cognitive control (frontal lobes) may be hierarchical. This study sought to address that hypothesis. Through fMRI scans of 12 individuals with frontal lobe lesions and 24 age-matched healthy control participants, researchers gathered data on the performance and activation of participants’ brains when performing a range of selection tasks. The tasks ranged in difficulty, with lower difficulty tasks requiring less cognitive control (while higher difficulty tasks required more. What researchers found was that frontal damage impaired action decisions at a level of abstraction that was dependent on lesion location. In other words, rostral (toward the top of the head) lesions affected more abstract tasks, whereas caudal (away from the head) lesions affected more concrete tasks. Additionally, two adjacent regions were distinguished on the basis of the level of control, which is consistent with previous fMRI findings. This was the first study to provide causal evidence for a rostral-caudal hierarchical organization of the frontal lobes.

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Mark D’Esposito, MD

Carol Heller BrainHealth Project Co-Leader

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