A part of the brain specialised in humans helps manage competing goals


In a nutshell: This study suggests that a part of the brain called 'frontopolar cortex' plays a role in assessing the value of an alternative goal and switching to it if it’s more beneficial.

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A part of the brain specialised in humans helps manage competing goals

One of the defining characteristics of primate brains, including humans, is the existence of ‘cortical area 10’ in a part of the brain called ‘frontopolar cortex’. This area is unique to primates and is proportionally larger in humans compared to other primates.

Previous studies have suggested that the frontopolar cortex is involved in advanced brain functions such as recalling memories, making decisions, multitasking, planning, and exercising moral judgement. However, the precise role of this part of the brain in cognition remains poorly understood.

The study of primates with damage in the frontopolar cortex has revealed a complex mix of impaired, spared, and even enhanced cognitive abilities. Lesions in this area do not affect overall intelligence, language, or sensory-motor skills; but lead to more subtle impairments in goal-directed behaviour.

This research by Brain Function CoE associate investigator Farshad Mansouri, chief investigator Marcello Rosa, and colleagues proposes a new theory for describing the functions of this key brain region.

According to this study, the frontopolar cortex is where we keep track of the importance of current and alternative goals to enable a switch in behaviour when the latter outweighs the first. For example, leaving the comfort and stability of your current job to explore a new career interest. People (and monkeys) with damage to the frontopolar cortex tend to have problems disengaging from what they are doing, even when something more valuable or important tries to get their attention.

The study further proposes that the evolution of the frontopolar cortex might have led to the advanced intelligence and creativity of the human mind.

Next steps:
The team plans to further test the role of the frontopolar cortex to gain insights into neuropsychiatric diseases such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder.

Mansouri, F. A., Koechlin, E., Rosa, M. G. P., & Buckley, M. J. (2017). Managing competing goals – a key role for the frontopolar cortex. ‎Nature Reviews Neuroscience, doi:10.1038/nrn.2017.111

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