The functions of the orbitofrontal cortex

Brain Cogn. 2004 Jun;55(1):11-29. doi: 10.1016/S0278-2626(03)00277-X.


The orbitofrontal cortex contains the secondary taste cortex, in which the reward value of taste is represented. It also contains the secondary and tertiary olfactory cortical areas, in which information about the identity and also about the reward value of odours is represented. The orbitofrontal cortex also receives information about the sight of objects from the temporal lobe cortical visual areas, and neurons in it learn and reverse the visual stimulus to which they respond when the association of the visual stimulus with a primary reinforcing stimulus (such as taste) is reversed. This is an example of stimulus-reinforcement association learning, and is a type of stimulus-stimulus association learning. More generally, the stimulus might be a visual or olfactory stimulus, and the primary (unlearned) positive or negative reinforcer a taste or touch. A somatosensory input is revealed by neurons that respond to the texture of food in the mouth, including a population that responds to the mouth feel of fat. In complementary neuroimaging studies in humans, it is being found that areas of the orbitofrontal cortex are activated by pleasant touch, by painful touch, by taste, by smell, and by more abstract reinforcers such as winning or losing money. Damage to the orbitofrontal cortex can impair the learning and reversal of stimulus-reinforcement associations, and thus the correction of behavioural responses when there are no longer appropriate because previous reinforcement contingencies change. The information which reaches the orbitofrontal cortex for these functions includes information about faces, and damage to the orbitofrontal cortex can impair face (and voice) expression identification. This evidence thus shows that the orbitofrontal cortex is involved in decoding and representing some primary reinforcers such as taste and touch; in learning and reversing associations of visual and other stimuli to these primary reinforcers; and in controlling and correcting reward-related and punishment-related behavior, and thus in emotion. The approach described here is aimed at providing a fundamental understanding of how the orbitofrontal cortex actually functions, and thus in how it is involved in motivational behavior such as feeding and drinking, in emotional behavior, and in social behavior.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Association Learning / physiology
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Frontal Lobe / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Nerve Net / physiology
  • Neurophysiology
  • Neuropsychology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology*
  • Reward
  • Smell / physiology*
  • Taste / physiology*
  • Vision, Ocular / physiology*
  • Visual Perception / physiology