Prefrontal Cortex

Prefrontal Cortex

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Prefrontal Cortex

The prefrontal cortex is the most anterior portion of the
frontal lobe. It responds mostly to stimuli signaling the need
for movement, however it is also responsible for many other
specialized functions. It receives information from all sensory
systems and can integrate a large amount of information (Kalat

Studies have shown that the prefrontal cortex is
responsible for working memory. Working memory is defined as
"the information that is currently available in memory for
working on a problem" (Anderson 2005). The prefrontal cortex
(PFC) also controls behaviors that depend on context (Kalat
2004). For example, if my cell phone rings when I am at the
mall or grocery store I would answer it. If it rings while I am
at the movies or in class I wouldn't answer it. People with
frontal lobe damage often exhibit inappropriate behaviors due to
the inability to recognize context.

Other studies indicate that the PFC is also responsible for
regulating emotions and decision-making. A study was conducted
in which participants were presented with three dilemmas. One
dilemma was called the Trolley Dilemma: a trolley is headed
toward five people standing on the track. You can switch the
trolley to another track killing only one person instead of
five. Subjects were asked to decide between right and wrong.
Brain scans of the participants show that contemplating the
dilemmas activates the prefrontal cortex and other areas that
respond to emotion (Kalat 2004).

Sustaining a lesion to the prefrontal cortex produces a
wide variety of side effects. The effects range from minor to
severe. You can get a lesion by head trauma or stroke (CJ Long

Possible deficits associated with minor lesions of the
prefrontal cortex:

- Inability to respond quickly to verbal instructions
- Speech dysfluency
- Disturbances in understanding complex pictures or words
- Difficulties with problem-solving
- Deficits in complex tasks requiring inhibition of habitual
behavior patterns

With more extensive lesions the person experiences greater
behavior deficits. These deficits include: perseveration, which
is the inability to make behavioral shifts in attention,
movement and attitude, decreased creativity, poor recall of
verbal and nonverbal material, difficulty writing, and deficits
in comprehension of logical-grammatical constructions (CJ Long

Other effects of extensive lesions:

- easily distracted
- disturbances in memory
- defects in time sense
- decreased anxiety
- less critical of oneself
- difficulty with unfamiliar analogies
- impulsivity

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- emotional disturbances such as: apathy, withdrawal, euphoria,
irritability, and obscene language.

Mah, Arnold, and Grafman (2004) conducted a study about the
impairment of social perception associated with lesions of the
prefrontal cortex. They used the Interpersonal Perception Task,
which consisted of several videotapes of social interaction.
For each social interaction participants were asked to judge
different aspects of behavior such as level of intimacy and
social status (Mah, Arnold, and Grafman 2004). The results of
the judgments were compared between participants with prefrontal
lesions and healthy participants. The results showed that
participants with prefrontal lesions showed poorer performance
on the Interpersonal Perception Task than the healthy
individuals. This means that participants with prefrontal
cortex lesions were less able to interpret social behavior thus
implying other cognitive deficits.

This study also found a strong correlation between
performance on the Interpersonal Perception Task and other
cognitive deficits, including deficits in working memory and
executive function. These deficits also affect decision-making
ability, which explains why subjects were having difficulty
interpreting social situations (Mah, Arnold, and Grafman 2004).

The results from this experiment also show deficits in
theory of mind. Theory of mind is the "ability to attribute
mental states to self and others" (Mah, Arnold, and Grafman
2004). The task required participants to use nonverbal cues to
pass judgments about the type of relationships shown between
individuals. This requires "accurate perception of social cues
as well as perspective-taking," which this experiment has shown
that people with prefrontal cortex lesions have trouble doing.

Impaired social perception contributes to inappropriate
responses in subjects with prefrontal lobe damage. Damage in
this brain region may also be involved in deficits in perception
of emotional cues, interpersonal judgments, and self-awareness
of cognitive ability (Mah, Arnold, Grafman 2004).

There have been several case studies done on the effects of
prefrontal lesions on children and how it affects their
development. Ackerly and Benton (1948) did a study on JP, which
is one of the most informative cases available. He had
extensive prefrontal lobe damage with a congenital onset.
However, JP seemed to be developing normally, he learned to walk
and talk by age 1. His family didn't notice a problem until he
was 3 years old when he began to wander long distances without
fear. He also had problems in school. He was boastful, bossy,
and stole money from other kids. He also had impairments in
inhibition, attention, working memory, delay of responding,
which are all typical characteristics of prefrontal cortex
damage. Because of his poor social adjustment he was extremely
disliked in school. The authors of the study determined his
primary social defect as an "immature level of differentiation
and elaboration of the cognitive and affective processes that
underlie role-taking, theory of mind, cooperation, and self-
evaluation" (Benton, Eslinger, Flaherty-Craig 2003).

Eslinger studied DT, who experienced a left frontal lesion
at age seven. She developed pronounced social impairment
including social alienation and uncooperative behaviors. She
was argumentative, did not share, and showed little concern for
others. In school she had poor attention control, trouble
learning, and was disorganized. Her social ineptness carried on
throughout her life. As an adult she continued to show
immature, impulsive and erratic behaviors. She could not
regulate her emotions and could not anticipate the needs of
others. She managed to get married and have a child, however
her extreme deficits seriously compromised her ability as a
mother and wife. She could not hold down a job due to
disorganization and lack of commitment. She ranked lower than
average in intelligence, working memory, executive function, and
problem-solving. Her moral development was also around that of
a 10-13 year old. Her poor regulation of emotion, lack of
empathy, argumentativeness, and disregard for social boundaries
led to severe social problems.

Among all the case studies reviewed in the article
Developmental Outcomes After Early Prefrontal Cortex Damage, the
authors noted several distinct characteristics present among all
the patients:
- impaired social cognition- uncooperative, limited perspective
taking skills
- learning deficits
- impaired cognition - decreased intellectual capacities
- deficits in personality and emotion - impatience,
irritability, egocentric, and labile moods
- deficits in moral behavior and empathy

The above mentioned deficits are consistent effects
reported for patients with lesions to the prefrontal cortex.


Anderson, John R. (2005) Cognitive Psychology and its
Implications. Worth Publishers: New York.

Eslinger, Paul J., Flaherty-Craig, Claire V., Benton, Arthur
L. (2004). Developmental outcomes after early prefrontal
cortex damage. Brain and Cognition, 55, 84- 103.

Kalat, James W. (2004) Biological Psychology. Ontario, Canada:

Long, C.J. Brain-Behavior Relationships: Prefrontal Cortex.

Mah, Linda, Arnold, Miriam C., Grafman, Jordan. Impairment of
social perception associated with lesions of the prefrontal
cortex. American Journal of Psychiatry, 161, 1247-1255.
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