Willed action and its impairments

Cogn Neuropsychol. 1998 Sep 1;15(6-8):483-533. doi: 10.1080/026432998381005.


Actions are goal-directed behaviours that usually involve movem ent. There is evidence that intentional self-generated actions (willed actions) are controlled differently from routine, stereotyped actions that are externally triggered by environmental stimuli. We review evidence from investigations using positron emission tomography (PET), recordings of movement-related cortical potentials (MRCPs) or transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), and conclude that willed actions are controlled by a network of frontal cortical (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, supplementary motor area, anterior cingulate) and subcortical (thalamus and basal ganglia) areas. We also consider evidence suggesting that some of the cognitive and motor deficits of patients with frontal lesions, Parkinson's disease, or schizophrenia as well as apathy and abulia and rarer phenomena such as primary obsessional slowness can be considered as reflecting im pairment of willed actions. We propose that the concept of a willed action system based on the frontostriatal circuits provides a useful framework for integrating the cognitive, motor, and motivational deficits found in these disorders. Problems remaining to be resolved include: identification of the component processes of willed actions; the specific and differential role played by each of the frontal cortical and subcortical areas in the control of willed actions; the specific mechanisms of impairm ent of willed actions in Parkinson's disease, schizophrenia, and frontal damage; and the precise role of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the willed action system.