Cognitive Control

"Cognitive control" is a construct from contemporary cognitive neuroscience that refers to processes that allow information processing and behavior to vary adaptively from moment to moment depending on current goals, rather than remaining rigid and inflexible. Cognitive control processes include a broad class of mental operations including goal or context representation and maintenance, and strategic processes such as attention allocation and stimulus-response mapping. Cognitive control is associated with a wide range of processes and is not restricted to a particular cognitive domain. For example, the presence of impairments in cognitive control functions may be associated with specific deficits in attention, memory, language comprehension and emotional processing. Given its pervasive influence, impaired cognitive control could account for many of the widespread impairments exhibited by people with schizophrenia and other neurodevelopmental disorders.

Based upon neuropsychological and neurophysiological studies in humans, and recording studies of non human primates, the prefrontal cortex is widely believed to play a key role in supporting cognitive control in the brain. The classic studies of Fuster and Goldman-Rakic emphasize the ability of the PFC to mount a sustained neuronal response during the delay period of a working memory task as critical to the animal's ability to make an appropriate response to a memorandum. Such sustained activity has been widely documented in neuroimaging studies of human working memory performance. Prefrontal activation also has been documented in association with high demands for control during selective attention performance, inhibition of pre-potent response tendencies, emotional regulation, and the use of linguistic context to support response selection. In a highly influential synthesis of these and other data related to PFC function Miller & Cohen (2001) proposed that the PFC represents and maintains context for responding or goals, which in turn biases processing in posterior and premotor areas in order to support task appropriate responding. This model is referred to as the Guided Activation Model.

Our own and others' studies using functional MRI have confirmed that the dorsolateral PFC is activated when subjects are required to overcome pre-potent response tendencies. This, in turn, leads to modulation of posterior areas involved in stimulus processing. In addition to accounting for cognitive control during tasks that involve overcoming pre-potent responding, there is a growing body of evidence implicating the PFC in regulating emotional behavior and in representing the appetitive value of actions. Work by our group and others suggests that lateral prefrontal cortex is involved in sustained control while medial and lateral frontal regions work in concert to adjust control dynamically according to changing task demands that are reflected in the level of conflict elicited during performance. Control conflict loop theory hypothesizes that during dynamic control, anterior cingulate cortex detects conflict and signals lateral prefrontal areas to more strongly represent context to support higher levels of control. Research in our lab uses behavioral, ERP, fMRI and computational modeling to increase our understanding of the neural mechansims underlying cognitive control, of the generalizability of the loop theory, and of the role of cognitive control in schizophrenia and other neurodevelopmental disorders including autism.