|Dynamic population coding in prefrontal cortex|
|Adapted from Fig 1|
We focused our investigation on an area in the frontal lobe known as lateral prefrontal cortex. This brain area has long been implicated in flexible cognitive processing. Damage to prefrontal cortex is classically associated with reduced cognitive flexibility (Luria, 1966) as part of a more general dysexecutive syndrome. In studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), lateral frontal cortex is also usually more active when participants perform tasks that demand cognitive flexibility (Wager et al., 2004). It it widely believed that prefrontal cortex is especially important for representing information about our environment and task goals in mind for guiding flexible behaviour (Baddeley, 2003; Miller, 2000).
Dynamic coding population coding
|Dynamic trajectory through state-space|
In this study, we observe a highly dynamic process underlying flexible cognitive processing using a statistical approach that allows us to decode the patterns of population-level activity in prefrontal cortex at high temporal resolution. During a task that requires a different stimulus-response mapping according to trial-by-trial instruction cues (see Fig 1), we found that the pattern of activity rapidly changes during processing of the instructive cue stimulus. After this complex cascade through activity state-space (for more info, see Stokes, 2011), overall activity levels return to baseline for the remainder of a delay period spanning the instruction cue and a possible target stimulus.
|Adapted from Fig 5|
|Adapted from Fig 6|
Putative mechanism: flexible connectivity
|Synaptic Plasticity [wiki commons]|
It has long been assumed that working memory is maintained by keeping a specific thought in mind, like a static snapshot of a visual image or an abstract goal such as ‘turn left at the next set of lights’. However, more recent evidence suggests that working memory can also be stored by laying down specific, but temporary neural pathways (e.g., Mongillo, Barak & Tsodyks, 2008). Neural pathways are formed by synaptic connections. In a comprehensive review of the literature on short-term synaptic plasticity, Zucker (1989) writes: “Chemical synapses are not static. Postsynaptic potentials wax and wane, depending on the recent history of presynaptic activity”. Short-term plasticity could provide a key mechanisms for flexible connectivity that is necessary for rapid, but temporary changes in network behaviour.
This new idea allows for a more dynamic theory of brain function, which is more consistent with the everyday experience of continuous thought processes that seem to evolve through time, rather than persist as a static representation. We suggest that short-term plasticity could help explain our data:
|Adapted from Fig 7|
Brain activity is inherently non-stationary - the continuity/stability of cognitive states are unlikely to depend on static activity states, but rather rapid changes in temporary connectivity patterns. This research also raises the intriguing possibility that cognitive capacity limits are not so much constrained by the sheer amount of information that we can keep in mind, but rather how we can put that information to use. Further research in our lab will explore these exciting possibilities.
Stokes, Kusunoki, Sigala, Nili, Gaffan and Duncan (2013). Dynamic Coding for Cognitive Control in Prefrontal Cortex. Neuron, 78, 364-375 [here]
Also see coverage: Miller Lab (MIT), Neuron Preview
Other literature cited:
Baddeley, A. (2003). Working memory: looking back and looking forward. Nat. Rev. Neurosci. 4, 829–839. [here]
Buonomano, D.V., and Maass, W. (2009). State-dependent computations: spatiotemporal processing in cortical networks. Nat. Rev. Neurosci. 10, 113–125. [here]
Luria, A.R. (1966). Higher Cortical Functions in Man (New York: Basic Books).
Miller, E.K. (2000). The prefrontal cortex and cognitive control. Nat. Rev. Neurosci. 1, 59–65. [here]
Mongillo, G., Barak, O., and Tsodyks, M. (2008). Synaptic theory of working memory. Science 319, 1543–1546. [here]
Wager, T.D., Jonides, J., and Reading, S. (2004). Neuroimaging studies of shifting attention: a meta-analysis. Neuroimage 22, 1679–1693. [here]
Zucker (1989) Short-term synaptic plasticity. Ann. Rev. Neurosci, 12: 13-31 [here]