Abstract Context Representations in Primate Amygdala and Prefrontal Cortex

Neuron. 2015 Aug 19;87(4):869-81. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2015.07.024.


Neurons in prefrontal cortex (PFC) encode rules, goals, and other abstract information thought to underlie cognitive, emotional, and behavioral flexibility. Here we show that the amygdala, a brain area traditionally thought to mediate emotions, also encodes abstract information that could underlie this flexibility. Monkeys performed a task in which stimulus-reinforcement contingencies varied between two sets of associations, each defining a context. Reinforcement prediction required identifying a stimulus and knowing the current context. Behavioral evidence indicated that monkeys utilized this information to perform inference and adjust their behavior. Neural representations in both amygdala and PFC reflected the linked sets of associations implicitly defining each context, a process requiring a level of abstraction characteristic of cognitive operations. Surprisingly, when errors were made, the context signal weakened substantially in the amygdala. These data emphasize the importance of maintaining abstract cognitive information in the amygdala to support flexible behavior.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Amygdala / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Anticipation, Psychological / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping / methods*
  • Female
  • Macaca mulatta
  • Male
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology*
  • Primates
  • Reinforcement, Psychology*
  • Thinking / physiology*