The D'Esposito Lab is a cognitive neuroscience research laboratory within the
Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute
and the Department of Psychology.

Recent Publications

Nee, DE, D'Esposito M.  2016.  The hierarchical organization of the lateral prefrontal cortex., 2016. eLife. 5 Abstract

Higher-level cognition depends on the lateral prefrontal cortex (LPFC), but its functional organization has remained elusive. An influential proposal is that the LPFC is organized hierarchically whereby progressively rostral areas of the LPFC process/represent increasingly abstract information facilitating efficient and flexible cognition. However, support for this theory has been limited. Here, human fMRI data revealed rostral/caudal gradients of abstraction in the LPFC. Dynamic causal modeling revealed asymmetrical LPFC interactions indicative of hierarchical processing. Contrary to dominant assumptions, the relative strength of efferent versus afferent connections positioned mid LPFC as the apex of the hierarchy. Furthermore, cognitive demands induced connectivity modulations towards mid LPFC consistent with a role in integrating information for control operations. Moreover, the strengths of these dynamics were related to trait-measured higher-level cognitive ability. Collectively, these results suggest that the LPFC is hierarchically organized with the mid LPFC positioned to synthesize abstract and concrete information to control behavior.

Rahnev, D, Nee DE, Riddle J, Larson AS, D'Esposito M.  2016.  Causal evidence for frontal cortex organization for perceptual decision making., 2016 May 9. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Abstract

Although recent research has shown that the frontal cortex has a critical role in perceptual decision making, an overarching theory of frontal functional organization for perception has yet to emerge. Perceptual decision making is temporally organized such that it requires the processes of selection, criterion setting, and evaluation. We hypothesized that exploring this temporal structure would reveal a large-scale frontal organization for perception. A causal intervention with transcranial magnetic stimulation revealed clear specialization along the rostrocaudal axis such that the control of successive stages of perceptual decision making was selectively affected by perturbation of successively rostral areas. Simulations with a dynamic model of decision making suggested distinct computational contributions of each region. Finally, the emergent frontal gradient was further corroborated by functional MRI. These causal results provide an organizational principle for the role of frontal cortex in the control of perceptual decision making and suggest specific mechanistic contributions for its different subregions.

Gallen, CL, Turner GR, Adnan A, D'Esposito M.  2016.  Reconfiguration of brain network architecture to support executive control in aging., 2016 Aug. Neurobiology of aging. 44:42-52. Abstract

Aging is accompanied by declines in executive control abilities and changes in underlying brain network architecture. Here, we examined brain networks in young and older adults during a task-free resting state and an N-back task and investigated age-related changes in the modular network organization of the brain. Compared with young adults, older adults showed larger changes in network organization between resting state and task. Although young adults exhibited increased connectivity between lateral frontal regions and other network modules during the most difficult task condition, older adults also exhibited this pattern of increased connectivity during less-demanding task conditions. Moreover, the increase in between-module connectivity in older adults was related to faster task performance and greater fractional anisotropy of the superior longitudinal fasciculus. These results demonstrate that older adults who exhibit more pronounced network changes between a resting state and task have better executive control performance and greater structural connectivity of a core frontal-posterior white matter pathway.

Chapman, SB, Aslan S, Spence JS, Keebler MW, DeFina LF, Didehbani N, Perez AM, Lu H, D'Esposito M.  2016.  Distinct Brain and Behavioral Benefits from Cognitive vs. Physical Training: A Randomized Trial in Aging Adults., 2016. Frontiers in human neuroscience. 10:338. Abstract

Insidious declines in normal aging are well-established. Emerging evidence suggests that non-pharmacological interventions, specifically cognitive and physical training, may counter diminishing age-related cognitive and brain functions. This randomized trial compared effects of two training protocols: cognitive training (CT) vs. physical training (PT) on cognition and brain function in adults 56-75 years. Sedentary participants (N = 36) were randomized to either CT or PT group for 3 h/week over 12 weeks. They were assessed at baseline-, mid-, and post-training using neurocognitive, MRI, and physiological measures. The CT group improved on executive function whereas PT group's memory was enhanced. Uniquely deploying cerebral blood flow (CBF) and cerebral vascular reactivity (CVR) MRI, the CT cohort showed increased CBF within the prefrontal and middle/posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) without change to CVR compared to PT group. Improvements in complex abstraction were positively associated with increased resting CBF in dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC). Exercisers with higher CBF in hippocampi bilaterally showed better immediate memory. The preliminary evidence indicates that increased cognitive and physical activity improves brain health in distinct ways. Reasoning training enhanced frontal networks shown to be integral to top-down cognitive control and brain resilience. Evidence of increased resting CBF without changes to CVR implicates increased neural health rather than improved vascular response. Exercise did not improve cerebrovascular response, although CBF increased in hippocampi of those with memory gains. Distinct benefits incentivize testing effectiveness of combined protocols to strengthen brain health.

Wallace, DL, Aarts E, d'Oleire Uquillas F, Dang LC, Greer SM, Jagust WJ, D'Esposito M.  2015.  Genotype status of the dopamine-related catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT) gene corresponds with desirability of "unhealthy" foods., 2015 May 8. Appetite. Abstract

The role of dopamine is extensively documented in weight regulation and food intake in both animal models and humans. Yet the role of dopamine has not been well studied in individual differences for food desirability. Genotype status of the dopamine-related catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT) gene has been shown to influence dopamine levels, with greater COMT enzymatic activity in val/val individuals corresponding to greater degradation of dopamine. Decreased dopamine has been associated with poorer cognitive control and diminished goal-directed behavior in various behavioral paradigms. Additionally, dopaminergic-rich regions such as the frontal cortex and dorsal striatum have been shown to be important for supporting food-related decision-making. However, the role of dopamine, as assessed by COMT genotype status, in food desirability has not been fully explored. Therefore, we utilized an individual's COMT genotype status (n=61) and investigated food desirability based on self-rated "healthy" and "unhealthy" food perceptions. Here we found val/val individuals (n=19) have greater desirability for self-rated "unhealthy" food items, but not self-rated "healthy" food items, as compared to val/met (n=24) and met/met (n=18) individuals (p<0.005). Utilizing an objective health measure for the food items, we also found val/val and val/met individuals have greater desirability for objectively defined "unhealthy" food items, as compared to met/met individuals (p<0.01). This work further substantiates a role of dopamine in food-related behaviors and more specifically in relationship to food desirability for "unhealthy" food items.