Lesion evidence that two distinct regions within prefrontal cortex are critical for n-back performance in humans

J Cogn Neurosci. 2009 Dec;21(12):2263-75. doi: 10.1162/jocn.2008.21172.


Although prefrontal cortex is clearly important in executive function, the specific processes carried out by particular regions within human prefrontal cortex remain a matter of debate. A rapidly growing corpus of functional imaging work now implicates various areas within prefrontal cortex in a wide range of "executive" tasks. Loss-of-function studies can help constrain the interpretation of such evidence by testing to what extent particular brain areas are necessary for a given cognitive process. Here we apply a component process analysis to understand prefrontal contributions to the n-back task, a widely used test of working memory, in a cohort of patients with focal prefrontal damage. We investigated letter 2-back task performance in 27 patients with focal damage to various regions within prefrontal cortex, compared to 29 demographically matched control subjects. Both "behavior-defined" approaches, using qualitative lesion analyses and voxel-based lesion-symptom mapping methods, and more conventional "lesion-defined" groupwise comparisons were undertaken to determine the relationships between specific sites of damage within prefrontal cortex and particular aspects of n-back task performance. We confirmed a critical role for left lateral prefrontal cortex in letter 2-back performance. We also identified a critical role for medial prefrontal cortex in this task: Damage to dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and adjacent dorsal fronto-medial cortex led to a pattern of impairment marked by high false alarm rates, distinct from the impairment associated with lateral prefrontal damage. These findings provide converging support for regionally specific models of human prefrontal function.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Brain Injuries / pathology*
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Female
  • Functional Laterality / physiology
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Male
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*
  • Middle Aged
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Prefrontal Cortex / pathology*
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiopathology*
  • Procainamide / analogs & derivatives


  • sematilide
  • Procainamide