The Monitoring and Control of Task Sequences in Human and Non-Human Primates

Front Syst Neurosci. 2016 Jan 21:9:185. doi: 10.3389/fnsys.2015.00185. eCollection 2015.


Our ability to plan and execute a series of tasks leading to a desired goal requires remarkable coordination between sensory, motor, and decision-related systems. Prefrontal cortex (PFC) is thought to play a central role in this coordination, especially when actions must be assembled extemporaneously and cannot be programmed as a rote series of movements. A central component of this flexible behavior is the moment-by-moment allocation of working memory and attention. The ubiquity of sequence planning in our everyday lives belies the neural complexity that supports this capacity, and little is known about how frontal cortical regions orchestrate the monitoring and control of sequential behaviors. For example, it remains unclear if and how sensory cortical areas, which provide essential driving inputs for behavior, are modulated by the frontal cortex during these tasks. Here, we review what is known about moment-to-moment monitoring as it relates to visually guided, rule-driven behaviors that change over time. We highlight recent human work that shows how the rostrolateral prefrontal cortex (RLPFC) participates in monitoring during task sequences. Neurophysiological data from monkeys suggests that monitoring may be accomplished by neurons that respond to items within the sequence and may in turn influence the tuning properties of neurons in posterior sensory areas. Understanding the interplay between proceduralized or habitual acts and supervised control of sequences is key to our understanding of sequential task execution. A crucial bridge will be the use of experimental protocols that allow for the examination of the functional homology between monkeys and humans. We illustrate how task sequences may be parceled into components and examined experimentally, thereby opening future avenues of investigation into the neural basis of sequential monitoring and control.

Keywords: TMS; attention; electrophysiology; executive functions; frontal cortex; imaging studies; monitoring; sequential control.

Publication types

  • Review