Recent real-time fMRI (rt-fMRI) training studies have demonstrated that subjects can achieve improved control over localized brain regions by using real-time feedback about the level of fMRI signal in these regions. It has remained unknown, however, whether subjects can gain control over anterior prefrontal cortex (PFC) regions that support some of the most complex forms of human thought. In this study, we used rt-fMRI training to examine whether subjects can learn to regulate the rostrolateral prefrontal cortex (RLPFC), or the lateral part of the anterior PFC, by using a meta-cognitive awareness strategy. We show that individuals can achieve improved regulation over the level of fMRI signal in their RLPFC by turning attention towards or away from their own thoughts. The ability to achieve improved modulation was contingent on observing veridical real-time feedback about the level of RLPFC activity during training; a sham-feedback control group demonstrated no improvement in modulation ability and neither did control subjects who received no rt-fMRI feedback but underwent otherwise identical training. Prior to training, meta-cognitive awareness was associated with recruitment of anterior PFC subregions, including both RLPFC and medial PFC, as well as a number of other midline and posterior cortical regions. Following training, however, regulation improvement was specific to RLPFC and was not observed in other frontal, midline, or parietal cortical regions. These results demonstrate the feasibility of acquiring control over high-level prefrontal regions through rt-fMRI training and offer a novel view into the correspondence between observable neuroscientific measures and highly subjective mental states.
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