Prefrontal contributions to executive control: fMRI evidence for functional distinctions within lateral Prefrontal cortex

Neuroimage. 2001 Dec;14(6):1337-47. doi: 10.1006/nimg.2001.0936.


The prefrontal cortex (PFC) plays a fundamental role in internally guided behavior. Although it is generally accepted that PFC subserves working memory and executive control operations, it remains unclear whether the subregions within lateral PFC support distinct executive control processes. An event-related fMRI study was implemented to test the hypothesis that ventrolateral and dorsolateral PFC are functionally distinct, as well as to assess whether functional specialization exists within ventrolateral PFC. Participants performed two executive control tasks that differed in the types of control processes required. During rote rehearsal, participants covertly rehearsed three words in the order presented, thus requiring phonological access and maintenance. During elaborative rehearsal, participants made semantic comparisons between three words held in working memory, reordering them from least to most desirable. Thus, in addition to maintenance, elaborative rehearsal required goal-relevant coding of items in working memory ("monitoring") and selection from among the items to implement their reordering. Results revealed that left posterior ventrolateral PFC was active during performance of both tasks, whereas right dorsolateral PFC was differentially engaged during elaborative rehearsal. The temporal characteristics of the hemodynamic responses further suggested that dorsolateral activation lagged ventrolateral activation. Finally, differential activation patterns were observed within left ventrolateral PFC, distinguishing between posterior and anterior regions. These data suggest that anatomically separable subregions within lateral PFC may be functionally distinct and are consistent with models that posit a hierarchical relationship between dorsolateral and ventrolateral regions such that the former monitors and selects goal-relevant representations being maintained by the latter.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging*
  • Male
  • Mental Recall / physiology*
  • Phonetics
  • Practice, Psychological
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology*
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Reading
  • Semantics
  • Serial Learning / physiology
  • Verbal Learning / physiology*