Working with memory: evidence for a role for the medial prefrontal cortex in performance monitoring during spatial delayed alternation

J Neurophysiol. 2012 Dec;108(12):3276-88. doi: 10.1152/jn.01192.2011. Epub 2012 Sep 26.


Neuronal spike activity was recorded in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) as rats performed an operant spatial delayed alternation task. The sensitivities of neurons to choice, outcome, and temporal information-related aspects of the task were examined. About one-third of neurons were sensitive to the location of delayed responding while animals were at one of two spatially distinct response ports. However, many fewer neurons (<10%) maintained choice information over the delay, each exhibiting persistent differences in firing rates for only a portion of the delay. Another third of cells encoded information about behavioral outcomes, and some of these neurons (>20% of all cells) fired at distinct rates in advance of correct and incorrect responses (i.e., prospective encoding of outcome). Other cells were sensitive to reward-related feedback stimuli (>20%), the outcome of the preceding trial (retrospective encoding, 5-10%), and/or the time since a trial was last performed (10-20%). An anatomical analysis of the recording sites found that cells that were sensitive to choice, temporal, and outcome information were commingled within the middle layers of the mPFC. Together, our results suggest that spatial processing is only part of what drives mPFC neurons to become active during spatial working memory tasks. We propose that the primary role of mPFC in these tasks is to monitor behavioral performance by encoding information about recent trial outcomes to guide expectations and responses on the current trial. By encoding these variables, the mPFC is able to exert control over action and ensure that tasks are performed effectively and efficiently.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Choice Behavior / physiology*
  • Male
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology*
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology*
  • Rats
  • Rats, Inbred BN
  • Rats, Long-Evans
  • Reward*
  • Spatial Behavior / physiology*
  • Time Factors