The representation of abstract task rules in the human prefrontal cortex

Sara L. Bengtsson, John-Dylan Haynes, Katsuyuki Sakai, Mark J. Buckley, Richard E. Passingham

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45 Citations (Scopus)


We have previously reported sustained activation in the ventral prefrontal cortex while participants prepared to perform 1 of 2 tasks as instructed. But there are studies that have reported activation reflecting task rules elsewhere in prefrontal cortex, and this is true in particular when it was left to the participants to decide which rule to obey. The aim of the present experiment was to use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to find whether there was activation in common, irrespective of the way that the task rules were established. On each trial, we presented a word after a variable delay, and participants had to decide either whether the word was abstract or concrete or whether it had 2 syllables. The participants either decided before the delay which task they would perform or were instructed by written cues. Comparing the self-generated with the instructed trials, there was early task set activation during the delay in the middle frontal gyrus. On the other hand, a conjunction analysis revealed sustained activation in the ventral prefrontal and polar cortex for both conditions. We argue that the ventral prefrontal cortex is specialized for handling conditional rules regardless of how the task rules were established.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1929-1936
Number of pages8
JournalCerebral Cortex
Issue number8
Early online date1 Dec 2008
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2009


  • decision making
  • fMRI
  • free selection
  • prefrontal cortex
  • task set

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