Modes of operation: A topographic neural gradient supporting stimulus dependent and independent cognition

Neuroimage. 2019 Feb 1:186:487-496. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2018.11.009. Epub 2018 Nov 14.


Human cognition is flexible - drawing on both sensory input, and representations from memory, to successfully navigate complex environments. Contemporary accounts suggest this flexibility is possible because neural function is organized into a hierarchy. Neural regions are organized along a macroscale gradient, anchored at one end by unimodal systems involved with perception and action, and at the other by transmodal systems, including the default mode network, supporting cognition less directly tied to immediate stimulus input. The current study tested whether this cortical hierarchy captures modes of behaviour that depend on immediate input, as well as those that depend on representations from memory. Participants made decisions regarding the location or identity of shapes using information in the environment (0-back) or from a prior trial (1-back). Using task based imaging we established that, regardless of the nature of the decision, medial and lateral visual cortex were recruited when decisions rely on immediate input, while transmodal regions were recruited when judgments depend on information from the prior trial. Using principal components analysis, we demonstrated that shifting decision-making from perception to memory altered the focus of neural activity from unimodal to transmodal regions (and vice versa). Notably, the more pronounced these shifts in neural activity from unimodal to transmodal regions when decisions relied on memory, the more efficiently individuals performed this task. These data illustrate how the macroscale organization of neural function into a hierarchy allows cognition to rely on input, or information from memory, in a flexible and efficient manner.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain Mapping / methods*
  • Cerebral Cortex / diagnostic imaging
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology*
  • Decision Making / physiology*
  • Executive Function / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual / physiology*
  • Principal Component Analysis
  • Space Perception / physiology*
  • Young Adult