Functional Specialization and Flexibility in Human Association Cortex

Cereb Cortex. 2015 Oct;25(10):3654-72. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhu217. Epub 2014 Sep 23.


The association cortex supports cognitive functions enabling flexible behavior. Here, we explored the organization of human association cortex by mathematically formalizing the notion that a behavioral task engages multiple cognitive components, which are in turn supported by multiple overlapping brain regions. Application of the model to a large data set of neuroimaging experiments (N = 10 449) identified complex zones of frontal and parietal regions that ranged from being highly specialized to highly flexible. The network organization of the specialized and flexible regions was explored with an independent resting-state fMRI data set (N = 1000). Cortical regions specialized for the same components were strongly coupled, suggesting that components function as partially isolated networks. Functionally flexible regions participated in multiple components to different degrees. This heterogeneous selectivity was predicted by the connectivity between flexible and specialized regions. Functionally flexible regions might support binding or integrating specialized brain networks that, in turn, contribute to the ability to execute multiple and varied tasks.

Keywords: cognitive ontology; functional connectivity; meta-analysis; parietal cortex; prefrontal cortex.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Bayes Theorem
  • Brain Mapping
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology*
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Female
  • Frontal Lobe / physiology
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Models, Neurological*
  • Parietal Lobe / physiology
  • Young Adult