The functional neuroanatomy of decision making: prefrontal control of thought and action

Brain Res. 2012 Jan 5;1428:3-12. doi: 10.1016/j.brainres.2011.05.053. Epub 2011 May 30.


Humans exhibit a remarkable capacity for flexible thought and action. Despite changing internal needs and external context, individuals maintain stable goals and pursue purposeful action. Functional neuroimaging research examining the neural underpinnings of such behavioral flexibility has progressed within several distinct traditions, as evident in the largely separate literatures on "cognitive control" and on "decision making." Both topics investigate the formulation of desires and intentions, the integration of knowledge and context, and the resolution of conflict and uncertainty. Additionally, each recognizes the fundamental role of the prefrontal cortex in supporting flexible selection of behavior. But despite this notable overlap, neuroimaging studies in cognitive control and decision making have exerted only limited influence on each other, in part due to differences in their theoretical and experimental groundings. Additionally, the precise organization of control processing within prefrontal cortex has remained unclear, fostering an acceptance of vague descriptions of decision making in terms of canonical cognitive control functions such as "inhibition" or "self-control." We suggest a unifying role for models of the hierarchical organization of action selection within prefrontal cortex. These models provide an important conceptual link between decision-making phenomena and cognitive-control processes, potentially facilitating cross-fertilization between these topics.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Cognition / physiology
  • Decision Making / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Neuroanatomy*
  • Neuroimaging
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology*
  • Thinking