Cognitive control requires the suppression of distracting information in order to focus on task-relevant information. We applied EEG source reconstruction via time-frequency linear constrained minimum variance beamforming to help elucidate the neural mechanisms involved in spatial conflict processing. Human subjects performed a Simon task, in which conflict was induced by incongruence between spatial location and response hand. We found an early (∼200 ms post-stimulus) conflict modulation in stimulus-contralateral parietal gamma (30–50 Hz), followed by a later alpha-band (8–12 Hz) conflict modulation, suggesting an early detection of spatial conflict and inhibition of spatial location processing. Inter-regional connectivity analyses assessed via cross-frequency coupling of theta (4–8 Hz), alpha, and gamma power revealed conflict-induced shifts in cortical network interactions: Congruent trials (relative to incongruent trials) had stronger coupling between frontal theta and stimulus-contrahemifield parietal alpha/gamma power, whereas incongruent trials had increased theta coupling between medial frontal and lateral frontal regions. These findings shed new light into the large-scale network dynamics of spatial conflict processing, and how those networks are shaped by oscillatory interactions.
Salient visual stimuli capture attention and trigger an eye-movement toward its location reflexively, regardless of an observer’s intentions. Here we aim to investigate the effect of aging (1) on the extent to which salient yet task-irrelevant stimuli capture saccades, and (2) on the ability to selectively suppress such oculomotor responses. Young and older adults were asked to direct their eyes to a target appearing in a stimulus array. Analysis of overall performance shows that saccades to the target object were disrupted by the appearance of a task-irrelevant abrupt-onset distractor when the location of this distractor did not coincide with that of the target object. Conditional capture function analyses revealed that, compared to young adults, older adults were more susceptible to oculomotor capture, and exhibited deficient selective suppression of the responses captured by task-irrelevant distractors. These effects were uncorrelated, suggesting two independent sources off age-related decline. Thus, with advancing age, salient visual distractors become more distracting; in part because they trigger reflexive eye-movements more potently; in part because of failing top-down control over such reflexes. The fact that these process-specific age effects remained concealed in overall oculomotor performance analyses emphasizes the utility of looking beyond the surface; indeed, there may be more than meets the eye.
oculomotor capture; inhibitory control; saccades; aging; distributional analysis
A potentially powerful predictor for the course of drug (ab)use is the approach-bias, that is, the pre-reflective tendency to approach rather than avoid drug-related stimuli. Here we investigated the neural underpinnings of cannabis approach and avoidance tendencies. By elucidating the predictive power of neural approach-bias activations for future cannabis use and problem severity, we aimed at identifying new intervention targets. Using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), neural approach-bias activations were measured with a Stimulus Response Compatibility task (SRC) and compared between 33 heavy cannabis users and 36 matched controls. In addition, associations were examined between approach-bias activations and cannabis use and problem severity at baseline and at six-month follow-up. Approach-bias activations did not differ between heavy cannabis users and controls. However, within the group of heavy cannabis users, a positive relation was observed between total lifetime cannabis use and approach-bias activations in various fronto-limbic areas. Moreover, approach-bias activations in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) and anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) independently predicted cannabis problem severity after six months over and beyond session-induced subjective measures of craving. Higher DLPFC/ACC activity during cannabis approach trials, but lower activity during cannabis avoidance trials were associated with decreases in cannabis problem severity. These findings suggest that cannabis users with deficient control over cannabis action tendencies are more likely to develop cannabis related problems. Moreover, the balance between cannabis approach and avoidance responses in the DLPFC and ACC may help identify individuals at-risk for cannabis use disorders and may be new targets for prevention and treatment.
Risk-taking behavior is characterized by pursuit of reward in spite of potential negative consequences. Dopamine neurotransmission along the mesocorticolimbic pathway is a potential modulator of risk behavior. In patients with Parkinson's Disease (PD), impulse control disorder (ICD) can result from dopaminergic medication use, particularly Dopamine Agonists (DAA). Behaviors associated with ICD include hypersexuality as well as compulsive gambling, shopping, and eating, and are potentially linked to alterations to risk processing. Using the Balloon Analogue Risk task, we assessed the role of agonist therapy on risk-taking behavior in PD patients with (n=22) and without (n=19) active ICD symptoms. Patients performed the task both ‘on’ and ‘off’ DAA. DAA increased risk-taking in PD patients with active ICD symptoms, but did not affect risk behavior of PD controls. DAA dose was also important in explaining risk behavior. Both groups similarly reduced their risk-taking in high compared to low risk conditions and following the occurrence of a negative consequence, suggesting that ICD patients do not necessarily differ in their ability to process and adjust to some aspects of negative consequences. Our findings suggest dopaminergic augmentation of risk-taking behavior as a potential contributing mechanism for the emergence of ICD in PD patients.
Impulse Control Disorders; Dopamine Agonists; Parkinson Disease; Risk behavior
Reward-based decision-learning refers to the process of learning to select those actions that lead to rewards while avoiding actions that lead to punishments. This process, known to rely on dopaminergic activity in striatal brain regions, is compromised in Parkinson’s disease (PD). We hypothesized that such decision-learning deficits are alleviated by induced positive affect, which is thought to incur transient boosts in midbrain and striatal dopaminergic activity. Computational measures of probabilistic reward-based decision-learning were determined for 51 patients diagnosed with PD. Previous work has shown these measures to rely on the nucleus caudatus (outcome evaluation during the early phases of learning) and the putamen (reward prediction during later phases of learning). We observed that induced positive affect facilitated learning, through its effects on reward prediction rather than outcome evaluation. Viewing a few minutes of comedy clips served to remedy dopamine-related problems associated with frontostriatal circuitry and, consequently, learning to predict which actions will yield reward.
Parkinson’s disease; positive affect; frontostriatal circuitry; probabilistic learning
There is a growing interest for the determinants of human choice behavior in social settings. Upon initial contact, investment choices in social settings can be inherently risky, as the degree to which the other person will reciprocate is unknown. Nevertheless, people have been shown to exhibit prosocial behavior even in one-shot laboratory settings where all interaction has been taken away. A logical step has been to link such behavior to trait empathy-related neurobiological networks. However, as a social interaction unfolds, the degree of uncertainty with respect to the expected payoff of choice behavior may change as a function of the interaction. Here we attempt to capture this factor. We show that the interpersonal tie one develops with another person during interaction – rather than trait empathy – motivates investment in a public good that is shared with an anonymous interaction partner. We examined how individual differences in trait empathy and interpersonal ties modulate neural responses to imposed monetary sharing. After, but not before interaction in a public good game, sharing prompted activation of neural systems associated with reward (striatum), empathy (anterior insular cortex and anterior cingulate cortex) as well as altruism, and social significance [posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS)]. Although these activations could be linked to both empathy and interpersonal ties, only tie-related pSTS activation predicted prosocial behavior during subsequent interaction, suggesting a neural substrate for keeping track of social relevance.
interpersonal ties; social ties; empathy; social decision-making; public good game; pSTS; ACC; insula
Increasing age is associated with subtle but meaningful changes in decision-making. It is unknown, however, to what degree these psychological changes are reflective of age-related changes in decision quality. Here, we investigated the effect of age on latent cognitive processes associated with risky decision-making on the Balloon Analog Risk Task (BART). In the BART, participants repetitively inflate a balloon in order to increase potential reward. At any point, participants can decide to cash-out to harvest the reward, or they can continue, risking a balloon pop that erases all earnings. We found that among seniors, increasing age was associated with greater reward-related risk taking when the balloon has a higher probability of popping (i.e., a “high risk” condition). Cognitive modeling results from hierarchical Bayesian estimation suggested that performance differences were due to increased reward sensitivity in high risk conditions in seniors.
aging; BART; impulsivity; cognitive modeling; reward
A body of work suggests similarities in the way we become aware of an error and process motivationally salient events. Yet, evidence for a shared neural mechanism has not been provided. A within subject investigation of the brain regions involved in error awareness and salience processing has not been reported. While the neural response to motivationally salient events is classically studied during target detection after longer target-to-target intervals in an oddball task and engages a widespread insula-thalamo-cortical brain network, error awareness has recently been linked to, most prominently, anterior insula cortex. Here we explore whether the anterior insula activation for error awareness is related to salience processing, by testing for activation overlap in subjects undergoing two different task settings. Using a within subjects design, we show activation overlap in six major brain areas during aware errors in an antisaccade task and during target detection after longer target-to-target intervals in an oddball task: anterior insula, anterior cingulate, supplementary motor area, thalamus, brainstem, and parietal lobe. Within subject analyses shows that the insula is engaged in both error awareness and the processing of salience, and that the anterior insula is more involved in both processes than the posterior insula. The results of a fine-grained spatial pattern overlap analysis between active clusters in the same subjects indicates that even if the anterior insula is activated for both error awareness and salience processing, the two types of processes might tend to activate non-identical neural ensembles on a finer-grained spatial level. Together, these outcomes suggest a similar functional phenomenon in the two different task settings. Error awareness and salience processing share a functional anatomy, with a tendency toward subregional dorsal and ventral specialization within the anterior insula.
anterior insula; error awareness; oddball processing; salience; magnetic resonance imaging; eyetracking
Dopamine is well known to play an important role in learning and motivation. Recent animal studies have implicated dopamine in the reinforcement of stimulus–response habits, as well as in flexible, goal-directed action. However, the role of dopamine in human action control is still not well understood.
We present the first investigation of the effect of reducing dopamine function in healthy volunteers on the balance between habitual and goal-directed action control.
The dietary intervention of acute dietary phenylalanine and tyrosine depletion (APTD) was adopted to study the effects of reduced global dopamine function on action control. Participants were randomly assigned to either the APTD or placebo group (ns = 14) to allow for a between-subjects comparison of performance on a novel three-stage experimental paradigm. In the initial learning phase, participants learned to respond to different stimuli in order to gain rewarding outcomes. Subsequently, an outcome-devaluation test and a slips-of-action test were conducted to assess whether participants were able to flexibly adjust their behaviour to changes in the desirability of the outcomes.
APTD did not prevent stimulus–response learning, nor did we find evidence for impaired response–outcome learning in the subsequent outcome-devaluation test. However, when goal-directed and habitual systems competed for control in the slips-of-action test, APTD tipped the balance towards habitual control. These findings were restricted to female volunteers.
We provide direct evidence that the balance between goal-directed and habitual control in humans is dopamine dependent. The results are discussed in light of gender differences in dopamine function and psychopathologies.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1007/s00213-011-2563-2) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
Dopamine; Tyrosine depletion; Habit; Goal-directed action; Gender differences; Learning
Past studies show beneficial as well as detrimental effects of subthalamic nucleus deep-brain stimulation on impulsive behaviour. We address this paradox by investigating individuals with Parkinson’s disease treated with subthalamic nucleus stimulation (n = 17) and healthy controls without Parkinson’s disease (n = 17) on performance in a Simon task. In this reaction time task, conflict between premature response impulses and goal-directed action selection is manipulated. We applied distributional analytic methods to separate the strength of the initial response impulse from the proficiency of inhibitory control engaged subsequently to suppress the impulse. Patients with Parkinson’s disease were tested when stimulation was either turned on or off. Mean conflict interference effects did not differ between controls and patients, or within patients when stimulation was on versus off. In contrast, distributional analyses revealed two dissociable effects of subthalamic nucleus stimulation. Fast response errors indicated that stimulation increased impulsive, premature responding in high conflict situations. Later in the reaction process, however, stimulation improved the proficiency with which inhibitory control was engaged to suppress these impulses selectively, thereby facilitating selection of the correct action. This temporal dissociation supports a conceptual framework for resolving past paradoxical findings and further highlights that dynamic aspects of impulse and inhibitory control underlying goal-directed behaviour rely in part on neural circuitry inclusive of the subthalamic nucleus.
Parkinson’s disease; deep-brain stimulation; response inhibition; impulsivity; subthalamic nucleus
The cognitive signature of unconscious processes is hotly debated recently. Generally, consciousness is thought to mediate flexible, adaptive and goal-directed behavior, but in the last decade unconscious processing has rapidly gained ground on traditional conscious territory. In this study we demonstrate that the scope and impact of unconscious information on behavior and brain activity can be modulated dynamically on a trial-by-trial basis. Participants performed a Go/No-Go experiment in which an unconscious (masked) stimulus preceding a conscious target could be associated with either a Go or No-Go response. Importantly, the mapping of stimuli onto these actions varied on a trial-by-trial basis, preventing the formation of stable associations and hence the possibility that unconscious stimuli automatically activate these control actions. By eliminating stimulus-response associations established through practice we demonstrate that unconscious information can be processed in a flexible and adaptive manner. In this experiment we show that the same unconscious stimulus can have a substantially different effect on behavior and (prefrontal) brain activity depending on the rapidly changing task context in which it is presented. This work suggests that unconscious information processing shares many sophisticated characteristics (including flexibility and context-specificity) with its conscious counterpart.
Processing irrelevant visual information sometimes activates incorrect response impulses. The engagement of cognitive control mechanisms to suppress these impulses and make proactive adjustments to reduce the future impact of incorrect impulses may rely on the integrity of frontal–basal ganglia circuitry. Using a Simon task, we investigated the effects of basal ganglia dysfunction produced by Parkinson's disease (PD) on both on-line (within-trial) and proactive (between-trial) control efforts to reduce interference produced by the activation of an incorrect response. As a novel feature, we applied distributional analyses, guided by the activation–suppression model, to differentiate the strength of incorrect response activation and the proficiency of suppression engaged to counter this activation. For situations requiring on-line control, PD (n = 52) and healthy control (n = 30) groups showed similar mean interference effects (i.e., Simon effects) on reaction time (RT) and accuracy. Distributional analyses showed that although the strength of incorrect response impulses was similar between the groups PD patients were less proficient at suppressing these impulses. Both groups demonstrated equivalent and effective proactive control of response interference on mean RT and accuracy rates. However, PD patients were less effective at reducing the strength of incorrect response activation proactively. Among PD patients, motor symptom severity was associated with difficulties in on-line, but not in proactive, control of response impulses. These results suggest that basal ganglia dysfunction produced by PD has selective effects on cognitive control mechanisms engaged to resolve response conflict, with primary deficits in the on-line suppression of incorrect responses occurring in the context of a relatively spared ability to adjust control proactively to minimize future conflict.
In conflict tasks such as the Stroop, the Eriksen flanker or the Simon task, it is generally observed that the detection of conflict in the current trial reduces the impact of conflicting information in the subsequent trial; a phenomenon termed conflict adaptation. This higher-order cognitive control function has been assumed to be restricted to cases where conflict is experienced consciously. In the present experiment we manipulated the awareness of conflict-inducing stimuli in a metacontrast masking paradigm to directly test this assumption. Conflicting response tendencies were elicited either consciously (through primes that were weakly masked) or unconsciously (strongly masked primes). We demonstrate trial-by-trial conflict adaptation effects after conscious as well as unconscious conflict, which could not be explained by direct stimulus/response repetitions. These findings show that unconscious information can have a longer-lasting influence on our behavior than previously thought and further stretch the functional boundaries of unconscious cognition.
To detect erroneous action outcomes is necessary for flexible adjustments and therefore a prerequisite of adaptive, goal-directed behavior. While performance monitoring has been studied intensively over two decades and a vast amount of knowledge on its functional neuroanatomy has been gathered, much less is known about conscious error perception, often referred to as error awareness. Here, we review and discuss the conditions under which error awareness occurs, its neural correlates and underlying functional neuroanatomy. We focus specifically on the anterior insula, which has been shown to be (a) reliably activated during performance monitoring and (b) modulated by error awareness. Anterior insular activity appears to be closely related to autonomic responses associated with consciously perceived errors, although the causality and directions of these relationships still needs to be unraveled. We discuss the role of the anterior insula in generating versus perceiving autonomic responses and as a key player in balancing effortful task-related and resting-state activity. We suggest that errors elicit reactions highly reminiscent of an orienting response and may thus induce the autonomic arousal needed to recruit the required mental and physical resources. We discuss the role of norepinephrine activity in eliciting sufficiently strong central and autonomic nervous responses enabling the necessary adaptation as well as conscious error perception.
Performance monitoring; Error awareness; Anterior insula; Orienting response; Autonomic arousal; ERN; Rostral cingulate zone; Norepinephrine
The prospect of reward may provide a motivational incentive for optimizing goal-directed behavior. Animal work demonstrates that reward-processing networks and oculomotor-control networks in the brain are connected through the dorsal striatum, and that reward anticipation can improve oculomotor control via this nexus. Due perhaps to deterioration in dopaminergic striatal circuitry, goal-directed oculomotor control is subject to decline in healthy seniors, and even more in individuals with Parkinson's disease (PD). Here we examine whether healthy seniors and PD patients are able to utilize reward prospects to improve their impaired antisaccade performance. Results confirmed that oculomotor control declined in PD patients compared to healthy seniors, and in healthy seniors compared to young adults. However, the motivational incentive of reward expectation resulted in benefits in antisaccade performance in all groups alike. These findings speak against structural and non-modifiable decline in cognitive control functions, and emphasize the remedial potential of motivational incentive mechanisms in healthy as well as pathological aging.
healthy aging; Parkinson's disease; cognitive control; decline; optimization; reward anticipation; action preparation; antisaccade
To head rather than heed to temptations is easier said than done. Since tempting actions are often contextually inappropriate, selective suppression is invoked to inhibit such actions. Thus far, laboratory tasks have not been very successful in highlighting these processes. We suggest that this is for three reasons. First, it is important to dissociate between an early susceptibility to making stimulus-driven impulsive but erroneous actions, and the subsequent selective suppression of these impulses that facilitates the selection of the correct action. Second, studies have focused on mean or median reaction times (RT), which conceals the temporal dynamics of action control. Third, studies have focused on group means, while considering individual differences as a source of error variance. Here, we present an overview of recent behavioral and imaging studies that overcame these limitations by analyzing RT distributions. As will become clear, this approach has revealed variations in inhibitory control over impulsive actions as a function of task instructions, conflict probability, and between-trial adjustments (following conflict or following an error trial) that are hidden if mean RTs are analyzed. Next, we discuss a selection of behavioral as well as imaging studies to illustrate that individual differences are meaningful and help understand selective suppression during action selection within samples of young and healthy individuals, but also within clinical samples of patients diagnosed with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder or Parkinson's disease.
action control; response inhibition; prefrontal cortex; basal ganglia; interference control
A frequency analysis was used to tag cortical activity from imagined rhythmic movements. Participants synchronized overt and imagined taps with brief visual stimuli presented at a constant rate, alternating between left and right index fingers. Brain potentials were recorded from across the scalp and topographic maps made of their power at the alternation frequency between left and right taps. Two prominent power foci occurred in each hemisphere for both overt and imagined taps, one over sensorimotor cortex and the other over posterior parietal cortex, with homologous foci in opposite hemispheres arising from oscillations 180° out of phase. These findings demonstrate temporal isomorphism at a neural level between overt and imagined movements and illustrate a new approach to studying covert actions.
covert motor processes; motor imagery; synchronization tapping; movement-related brain potentials; frequency tagging
The medial prefrontal cortex (MFC) is critical for our ability to learn from previous mistakes. Here we provide evidence that neurophysiological oscillatory long-range synchrony is a mechanism of post-error adaptation that occurs even without conscious awareness of the error. During a visually signaled Go/No-Go task in which half of the No-Go cues were masked and thus not consciously perceived, response errors enhanced tonic (i.e., over 1–2 s) oscillatory synchrony between MFC and occipital cortex (OCC) leading up to and during the subsequent trial. Spectral Granger causality analyses demonstrated that MFC → OCC directional synchrony was enhanced during trials following both conscious and unconscious errors, whereas transient stimulus-induced occipital → MFC directional synchrony was independent of errors in the previous trial. Further, the strength of pre-trial MFC-occipital synchrony predicted individual differences in task performance. Together, these findings suggest that synchronous neurophysiological oscillations are a plausible mechanism of MFC-driven cognitive control that is independent of conscious awareness.
cognitive control; top-down regulation; oscillation; synchrony; EEG
In everyday life we tune our behavior to a rapidly changing environment as well as to the behavior of others. The behavioral and neural underpinnings of such adaptive mechanisms are the focus of the present study. In a social version of a prototypical interference task we investigated whether trial-to-trial adjustments are comparable when experiencing conflicting action tendencies ourselves, or simulate such conflicts when observing another player performing the task. Using behavioral and neural measures by means of event-related brain potentials we showed that both own as well as observed conflict result in comparable trial-to-trial adjustments. These adjustments are found in the efficiency of behavioral adjustments, and in the amplitude of an event-related potential in the N2 time window. In sum, in both behavioral and neural terms, we adapt to conflicts happening to others just as if they happened to ourselves.
social cognition; Simon task; conflict adaptation; Gratton effect; observed conflict; event related potentials; N2
The option to choose between several courses of action is often associated with the feeling of being in control. Yet, in certain situations, one may prefer to decline such agency and instead leave the choice to others. In the present functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study, we provide evidence that the neural processes involved in decision-making are modulated not only by who controls our choice options (agency), but also by whether we have a say in who is in control (context). The fMRI results are noteworthy in that they reveal specific contributions of the anterior frontomedian cortex (viz. BA 10) and the rostral cingulate zone (RCZ) in decision-making processes. The RCZ is engaged when conditions clearly present us with the most choice options. BA 10 is engaged in particular when the choice is completely ours, as well as when it is completely up to others to choose for us which in turn gives rise to an attribution of control to oneself or someone else, respectively. After all, it does not only matter whether we have any options to choose from, but also who decides on that.