About this Research Topic
The distinct property that characterizes animals’ behavior is their capacity to generate movements. Some movements are determined by internal or external stimuli (reflexes), others are manifestations of a centrally generated intention to act (voluntary actions). Intention to act might originate from bodily needs or higher order deliberations. In voluntary actions what counts is that the individual has the intention to achieve an often far-removed goal, and this goal determines planning and a coherent series of actions leading to its achievement.
The prefrontal cortex is considered crucial for cognitive control: the ability to orchestrate thought and action in accordance with intention. In particular, over time electrophysiological and brain imaging studies conducted on monkeys and humans, showed that prefrontal cortex is involved in several cognitive processes crucial for action selection and inhibition, decision making and attention allocation, such as maintaining mnemonic tracks, coding rules, future and previous goals and contextual information. A wealth of evidence has shown its involvement in decision-making, one of major executive function, often adopting tasks that required the evaluation of sensory evidence or magnitude in numeric, spatial, and timing domains or tasks requiring value-based decisions within the context of the emerging field of neuroeconomics. More recently other studies have addressed also the decision making process in condition of free-choice.
Furthermore, recent studies have begun to reveal neuronal mechanisms for strategic behavioral planning and for the development of knowledge that enables the planning of macrostructures of event-action sequences at the conceptual level.
A major debate about prefrontal cortex has been whether this region should be considered unitary or heterogeneous in function. Lesion studies on monkey showed that the ablation of specific restricted areas in the PFC produce distinct behavioral deficits, providing important clues regarding functional specialization within the PFC. In agreement with this data, numerous anatomical studies showed that the prefrontal cortex is a collection of interconnected neocortical areas that sends and receives projections from virtually all cortical sensory systems, motor systems, and many subcortical structures, but at the moment is still unclear which is the specific involvement of each area in the apparently multiple prefrontal functions. Equally critical is to identify what distinguishes prefrontal cortex, by virtue of its wide variety of inputs and intrinsic connectivity, from other cortical and subcortical areas that share similar signals.
The aim of this research topic is to bring together the work of different groups studying the prefrontal cortex in humans and animal models using different functional (e.g. single neuron recordings, EEG, fMRI, TMS) and anatomical techniques (e.g. neural tracers injections, DTI) as well as psychopharmacological and clinical studies and theoretical contributions to compare the results obtained with different techniques, discuss the state of the art, integrate the knowledge accumulated in different fields, and thus stimulate the development of a new general framework about the role of the prefrontal cortex in executive functions.
Keywords: Decision making, Value, Action selection, Goal coding, Memory, Rule coding, Neurophysiology, Neuroanatomy, Brain Imaging, Attention, Social cognition
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