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What Is the Role of the Prefrontal Cortex?

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  • Written By: Sarah Kay Moll
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 28 October 2016
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Controlling executive functions, or higher cognitive processes, is the main function of the prefrontal cortex. This region is involved in controlling behavior, intellectual ability, and memory. It is involved in the process of learning and following rules, planning and decision making, and abstract thinking. The prefrontal cortex is the anterior part of the brain’s frontal lobe, located directly behind the forehead. There are interconnections between this and many other parts of the brain.

Initiating appropriate actions and inhibiting inappropriate ones are types of executive functions. For example, a person at a wedding might see the wedding cake, a positive stimulus. This area controls that person’s behavior so that he or she doesn’t go up and take a bite of the cake while the bride and groom are cutting it.

The brain gets a huge amount of information about its surroundings from all the senses. This information can be overwhelming and make it impossible to focus. The prefrontal cortex is involved in sorting out which information is relevant and which information can be ignored.

It is also involved in making judgments. Seeing the difference between good and bad, or better and best, are other functions localized in this area. Predicting and understanding consequences of actions is also a function of this region.

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Many parts of the brain are connected to the prefrontal cortex. The regions of the brain involved in emotion and the brainstem’s arousal systems have interconnections to this area, causing a relationship between a person’s mental state and his or her state of arousal. The temporal and parietal lobes also have interconnections there.

Bilateral lesions in this area produce a number of deficits in intellectual ability, memory, and judgment. These lesions also interfere with a person’s ability to concentrate. Damage to this area may also have effects on personality and behavior.

Decreases in the volume of the prefrontal cortex and in the interconnections to other parts of the brain are seen in many psychological disorders. ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) is one disorder that may be related to this area. Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression may also be affected by the prefrontal cortex.

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