Neurobiological circuits regulating attention, cognitive control, motivation, and emotion: disruptions in neurodevelopmental psychiatric disorders

J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2012 Apr;51(4):356-67. doi: 10.1016/j.jaac.2012.01.008. Epub 2012 Mar 3.


Objective: This article aims to review basic and clinical studies outlining the roles of prefrontal cortical (PFC) networks in the behavior and cognitive functions that are compromised in childhood neurodevelopmental disorders and how these map into the neuroimaging evidence of circuit abnormalities in these disorders.

Method: Studies of animals, normally developing children, and patients with neurodevelopmental disorders were reviewed, with focus on neuroimaging studies.

Results: The PFC provides "top-down" regulation of attention, inhibition/cognitive control, motivation, and emotion through connections with posterior cortical and subcortical structures. Dorsolateral and inferior PFC regulate attention and cognitive/inhibitory control, whereas orbital and ventromedial structures regulate motivation and affect. PFC circuitries are very sensitive to their neurochemical environment, and small changes in the underlying neurotransmitter systems, e.g. by medications, can produce large effects on mediated function. Neuroimaging studies of children with neurodevelopmental disorders show altered brain structure and function in distinctive circuits respecting this organization. Children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder show prominent abnormalities in the inferior PFC and its connections to striatal, cerebellar, and parietal regions, whereas children with conduct disorder show alterations in the paralimbic system, comprising ventromedial, lateral orbitofrontal, and superior temporal cortices together with specific underlying limbic regions, regulating motivation and emotion control. Children with major depressive disorder show alterations in ventral orbital and limbic activity, particularly in the left hemisphere, mediating emotions. Finally, children with obsessive-compulsive disorder appear to have a dysregulation in orbito-fronto-striatal inhibitory control pathways, but also deficits in dorsolateral fronto-parietal systems of attention.

Conclusions: Altogether, there is a good correspondence between anatomical circuitry mediating compromised functions and patterns of brain structure and function changes in children with neuropsychiatric disorders. Medications may optimize the neurochemical environment in PFC and associated circuitries, and improve structure and function.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Brain Diseases / diagnosis
  • Brain Diseases / physiopathology*
  • Brain Diseases / psychology
  • Brain Mapping
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiopathology
  • Child
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Dominance, Cerebral / physiology
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Inhibition, Psychological
  • Internal-External Control*
  • Mental Disorders / diagnosis
  • Mental Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Mental Disorders / psychology
  • Motivation / physiology*
  • Nerve Net / physiopathology*
  • Neurotransmitter Agents / physiology


  • Neurotransmitter Agents