Flexible Coding of Task Rules in Frontoparietal Cortex: An Adaptive System for Flexible Cognitive Control

J Cogn Neurosci. 2015 Oct;27(10):1895-911. doi: 10.1162/jocn_a_00827. Epub 2015 May 26.


How do our brains achieve the cognitive control that is required for flexible behavior? Several models of cognitive control propose a role for frontoparietal cortex in the structure and representation of task sets or rules. For behavior to be flexible, however, the system must also rapidly reorganize as mental focus changes. Here we used multivoxel pattern analysis of fMRI data to demonstrate adaptive reorganization of frontoparietal activity patterns following a change in the complexity of the task rules. When task rules were relatively simple, frontoparietal cortex did not hold detectable information about these rules. In contrast, when the rules were more complex, frontoparietal cortex showed clear and decodable rule discrimination. Our data demonstrate that frontoparietal activity adjusts to task complexity, with better discrimination of rules that are behaviorally more confusable. The change in coding was specific to the rule element of the task and was not mirrored in more specialized cortex (early visual cortex) where coding was independent of difficulty. In line with an adaptive view of frontoparietal function, the data suggest a system that rapidly reconfigures in accordance with the difficulty of a behavioral task. This system may provide a neural basis for the flexible control of human behavior.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / physiology*
  • Adult
  • Brain Mapping / methods*
  • Executive Function / physiology*
  • Female
  • Frontal Lobe / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Parietal Lobe / physiology*
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology*
  • Young Adult