This article focuses on the interaction between the basal ganglia (BG) and prefrontal cortex (PFC). The BG are a group of nuclei at the base of the forebrain that are highly connected with cortex. A century of research suggests that the role of the BG is not exclusively motor, and that the BG also play an important role in learning and memory. In this review article, we argue that one important role of the BG is to train connections between posterior cortical areas and frontal cortical regions that are responsible for automatic behavior after extensive training. According to this view, one effect of BG trial-and-error learning is to activate the correct frontal areas shortly after posterior associative cortex activation, thus allowing for Hebbian learning of robust, fast, and efficient cortico-cortical processing. This hypothesized process is general, and the content of the learned associations depends on the specific areas involved (e.g., associations involving premotor areas would be more closely related to behavior than associations involving the PFC). We review experiments aimed at pinpointing the function of the BG and the frontal cortex and show that these results are consistent with the view that the BG is a general purpose trainer for cortico-cortical connections. We conclude with a discussion of some implications of the integrative framework and how this can help better understand the role of the BG in many different tasks.
Keywords: Basal ganglia; Fronto-striatal connectivity; Prefrontal cortex; Premotor cortex; Supplementary motor area.
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