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

Recent Publications

Hwang, K, Bertolero M, Liu W, D'Esposito M.  2017.  The human thalamus is an integrative hub for functional brain networks., 2017 Apr 27. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience. Abstract

The thalamus is globally connected with distributed cortical regions, yet the functional significance of this extensive thalamocortical connectivity remains largely unknown. By performing graph-theoretic analyses on thalamocortical functional connectivity data collected from human participants, we found that most thalamic subdivisions display network properties capable of integrating multimodal information across diverse cortical functional networks. From a meta-analysis of a large dataset of functional brain imaging experiments, we further found that the thalamus is involved in multiple cognitive functions. Finally, we found that focal thalamic lesions in humans have widespread distal effects, disrupting the modular organization of cortical functional networks. This converging evidence suggests that the human thalamus is a critical hub region that could integrate diverse information being processed throughout the cerebral cortex, as well as maintain the modular structure of cortical functional networks.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENTThe thalamus is traditionally viewed as a passive relay station of information from sensory organs or subcortical structures to the cortex. However, the thalamus has extensive connections with the entire cerebral cortex, which can also serve to integrate information processing between cortical regions. In this study, we demonstrate that multiple thalamic subdivisions displays network properties capable of integrating information across multiple functional brain networks. Moreover, the thalamus is engaged by tasks requiring multiple cognitive functions. These findings support the idea that the thalamus is involved in integrating information across cortical networks.

Gratton, C, Yousef S, Aarts E, Wallace DL, D'Esposito M, Silver MA.  2017.  Cholinergic, but not dopaminergic or noradrenergic, enhancement sharpens visual spatial perception in humans., 2017 Mar 23. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience. Abstract

The neuromodulator acetylcholine (ACh) modulates spatial integration in visual cortex by altering the balance of inputs that generate neuronal receptive fields. These cholinergic effects may provide a neurobiological mechanism underlying the modulation of visual representations by visual spatial attention. However, the consequences of cholinergic enhancement on visuospatial perception in humans are unknown. We conducted two experiments to test whether enhancing cholinergic signaling selectively alters perceptual measures of visuospatial interactions in human subjects. In Experiment 1, a double-blind placebo-controlled pharmacology study, we measured how flanking distractors influenced detection of a small contrast decrement of a peripheral target, as a function of target/flanker distance. We found that cholinergic enhancement with the cholinesterase inhibitor donepezil improved target detection, and modeling suggested that this was mainly due to a narrowing of the extent of facilitatory perceptual spatial interactions. In Experiment 2, we tested whether these effects were selective to the cholinergic system or would also be observed following enhancements of related neuromodulators dopamine (DA) or norepinephrine (NE). Unlike cholinergic enhancement, DA (bromocriptine) and NE (guanfacine) manipulations did not improve performance or systematically alter the spatial profile of perceptual interactions between targets and distractors. These findings reveal mechanisms by which cholinergic signaling influences visual spatial interactions in perception and improves processing of a visual target among distractors - effects that are notably similar to those of spatial selective attention.Significance StatementAcetylcholine influences how visual cortical neurons integrate signals across space - perhaps providing a neurobiological mechanism for the effects of visual selective attention. However, the influence of cholinergic enhancement on visuospatial perception remains unknown. Here we demonstrate that cholinergic enhancement improves detection of a target flanked by distractors, consistent with sharpened visuospatial perceptual representations. Furthermore, while most pharmacological studies focus on a single neurotransmitter, many neuromodulators can have related effects on cognition and perception. Thus, we also demonstrate that enhancing noradrenergic and dopaminergic systems does not systematically improve visuospatial perception or alter its tuning. Our results link visuospatial tuning effects of acetylcholine at the neuronal and perceptual levels and provide insights into the connection between cholinergic signaling and visual attention.

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.

Peters, J, D'Esposito M.  2016.  Effects of Medial Orbitofrontal Cortex Lesions on Self-Control in Intertemporal Choice., 2016 Aug 31. Current biology : CB. Abstract

Many decisions involve a trade-off between the temporal proximity of a reward and its magnitude. A range of clinical conditions are associated with poor self-control during such intertemporal choices, such that smaller rewards that are received sooner are preferred over larger rewards that are received later to a greater extent [1, 2]. According to a prominent neural model of self-control [3-6], subjective reward values are represented in the medial orbitofrontal cortex (mOFC) at the time of choice [7-9]. Successful self-control in this model is then thought to depend on a modulation of these mOFC value representations via the lateral prefrontal cortex (lPFC) [3, 6]. Here we directly tested three key predictions of this model in patients with lesions to the mOFC (n = 9) and matched controls (n = 19). First, we show that mOFC lesions disrupt choice-free valuation ratings. This finding provides causal evidence for a role of the mOFC in reward valuation and contrasts with the effects of lPFC disruption [6]. Second, we show that mOFC damage indeed decreases self-control during intertemporal choice, replicating previous findings [10]. Third, extending these previous observations, we show that the effect of mOFC damage on intertemporal choice depends on the actual self-control demands of the task. Our findings thus provide causal evidence for a role of mOFC in reward valuation and are compatible with the idea that mOFC damage affects self-control specifically under conditions that might normally require a modulation of mOFC value representations, e.g., by the lPFC.

Nee, DE, D'Esposito M.  2016.  The Representational Basis of Working Memory., 2016 Sep 28. Current topics in behavioral neurosciences. Abstract

Working memory refers to a system involved in the online maintenance and manipulation of information in the absence of external input. Due to the importance of working memory in higher-level cognition, a wealth of neuroscience studies has investigated its neural basis. These studies have often led to conflicting viewpoints regarding the importance of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and posterior sensory cortices. Here, we review evidence for each position. We suggest that the relative contributions of the PFC and sensory cortices to working memory can be understood with respect to processing demands. We argue that procedures that minimize processing demands lead to increased importance of sensory representations, while procedures that permit transformational processing lead to representational abstraction that relies on the PFC. We suggest that abstract PFC representations support top-down control over posterior representations while also providing bottom-up inputs into higher-level cognitive processing. Although a number of contemporary studies have studied working memory while using procedures that minimize the role of the PFC, we argue that consideration of the PFC is critical for our understanding of working memory and higher-level cognition more generally.