The prefrontal cortex is located in the frontal lobes of the brain. Functionally, the frontal lobes are involved in inhibiting inappropriate behavior, decision making, and planning. For this reason, prefrontal cortex damage commonly leads to an inability to plan or to behave in ways that are socially acceptable. If the damage occurs in childhood, individuals may never develop any understanding of moral behavior. When an injury happens in adulthood, the person may realize what is socially required but may still be unable to behave in an acceptable way.
Damage to the prefrontal cortex is relatively common, since this area is right behind the forehead. The function of this part of the cerebral cortex invovles organizing and carrying out complex tasks. Judgments and decisions could be impaired following its injury, as these are the parts of the brain which enable a person to consider possible future actions in the light of what happened in the past, allowing the probable best course of action to be chosen. As the impairments caused by damage are relatively specific, and most of the brain can still function normally, the condition may not be recognized as brain damage at first.
The prefrontal cortex is involved with the ability to suppress speech and actions that would be considered immoral or inappropriate in most societies. For example, the person would be unable to refrain from eating when hungry, even when that involved removing food from someone else's plate. What is known as working memory can also be affected by prefrontal cortex damage. Working memory involves holding on to information for a number of seconds, like remembering a telephone number for long enough to key the digits into the telephone.
When there is damage to this part of the brain, the person typically will show a lack of empathy for other people; this is one of the factors involved in the development of antisocial behaviors. Some researchers have found that many violent criminals have defective prefrontal cortexes, with a decrease in the amount of brain tissue in this area. Such findings are associated with behavior that involves dishonesty, a lack of guilt, and an inability to see situations from a different point of view. Surgical treatment may be necessary for cases of prefrontal cortex damage that are caused by tumors or bleeding in the brain. In many cases, no treatment is possible and people will typically require supervision due to difficulties with organization and impulse control.