Influence of motivation on control hierarchy in the human frontal cortex.

Bahlmann, J, Aarts E, D'Esposito M.  2015.  Influence of motivation on control hierarchy in the human frontal cortex., 2015 Feb 18. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience. 35(7):3207-17.


The frontal cortex mediates cognitive control and motivation to shape human behavior. It is generally observed that medial frontal areas are involved in motivational aspects of behavior, whereas lateral frontal regions are involved in cognitive control. Recent models of cognitive control suggest a rostro-caudal gradient in lateral frontal regions, such that progressively more rostral (anterior) regions process more complex aspects of cognitive control. How motivation influences such a control hierarchy is still under debate. Although some researchers argue that both systems work in parallel, others argue in favor of an interaction between motivation and cognitive control. In the latter case it is yet unclear how motivation would affect the different levels of the control hierarchy. This was investigated in the present functional MRI study applying different levels of cognitive control under different motivational states (low vs high reward anticipation). Three levels of cognitive control were tested by varying rule complexity: stimulus-response mapping (low-level), flexible task updating (mid-level), and sustained cue-task associations (high-level). We found an interaction between levels of cognitive control and motivation in medial and lateral frontal subregions. Specifically, flexible updating (mid-level of control) showed the strongest beneficial effect of reward and only this level exhibited functional coupling between dopamine-rich midbrain regions and the lateral frontal cortex. These findings suggest that motivation differentially affects the levels of a control hierarchy, influencing recruitment of frontal cortical control regions depending on specific task demands.