Toward a "treadmill test" for cognition: Improved prediction of general cognitive ability from the task activated brain

Hum Brain Mapp. 2020 Aug 15;41(12):3186-3197. doi: 10.1002/hbm.25007. Epub 2020 May 4.


General cognitive ability (GCA) refers to a trait-like ability that contributes to performance across diverse cognitive tasks. Identifying brain-based markers of GCA has been a longstanding goal of cognitive and clinical neuroscience. Recently, predictive modeling methods have emerged that build whole-brain, distributed neural signatures for phenotypes of interest. In this study, we employ a predictive modeling approach to predict GCA based on fMRI task activation patterns during the N-back working memory task as well as six other tasks in the Human Connectome Project dataset (n = 967), encompassing 15 task contrasts in total. We found tasks are a highly effective basis for prediction of GCA: The 2-back versus 0-back contrast achieved a 0.50 correlation with GCA scores in 10-fold cross-validation, and 13 out of 15 task contrasts afforded statistically significant prediction of GCA. Additionally, we found that task contrasts that produce greater frontoparietal activation and default mode network deactivation-a brain activation pattern associated with executive processing and higher cognitive demand-are more effective in the prediction of GCA. These results suggest a picture analogous to treadmill testing for cardiac function: Placing the brain in a more cognitively demanding task state significantly improves brain-based prediction of GCA.