Cognitive and behavioural flexibility: neural mechanisms and clinical considerations

Nat Rev Neurosci. 2021 Mar;22(3):167-179. doi: 10.1038/s41583-021-00428-w. Epub 2021 Feb 3.


Cognitive and behavioural flexibility permit the appropriate adjustment of thoughts and behaviours in response to changing environmental demands. Brain mechanisms enabling flexibility have been examined using non-invasive neuroimaging and behavioural approaches in humans alongside pharmacological and lesion studies in animals. This work has identified large-scale functional brain networks encompassing lateral and orbital frontoparietal, midcingulo-insular and frontostriatal regions that support flexibility across the lifespan. Flexibility can be compromised in early-life neurodevelopmental disorders, clinical conditions that emerge during adolescence and late-life dementias. We critically evaluate evidence for the enhancement of flexibility through cognitive training, physical activity and bilingual experience.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior / physiology*
  • Behavioral Symptoms / physiopathology
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Cognition Disorders / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Nerve Net / physiology*
  • Nerve Net / physiopathology
  • Nervous System Physiological Phenomena*
  • Neural Pathways / physiology