Prefrontal Cortex

Summary

  • The prefrontal cortex is a part of the frontal lobe in our brain responsible for an array of vital functions, including executive functioning, memory, attention, and emotion regulation.
  • The prefrontal cortex is the only part of the brain that develops for a longer period. It is the only part of the brain that is developed in the end. It is estimated that the prefrontal cortex continues to develop till the age of 25.
  • The period of teenage till young adulthood is critical as in this time frame; the prefrontal cortex is still developing. Our experiences, social interactions, and learning can impact the development of this region. In teenagers, as we experience and learn from our surroundings, the cellular connections of the prefrontal cortex strengthen, and our ability to perform complex functions grows.
  • Psychologists suggest that teens should be encouraged to go out and explore their surroundings and get a hands-on experience of things. It will help them mature quickly and strengthen their ability to perform executive functions in daily life.
  • Each part of the brain is interconnected with one another. For example, the prefrontal cortex is located at the front end of our brain in the frontal lobe connected with our brain’s motor and pre-motors areas. Generally, the prefrontal cortex can be divided into three major substructures according to the function they serve.
  • The medial prefrontal cortex is responsible for attention and concentration. Therefore, motivation to initiate a task comes from this part, and it helps us maintain our attention and concentration.
  • The lateral prefrontal cortex focuses on planning and implementation of daily life tasks, either complex or simple. The lateral part helps us gather the required information, make a plan in our mind and execute it step by step.
  • The Orbital Prefrontal Cortex is responsible for keeping our emotions and impulses in control. It helps us to control overwhelming emotions and refrain from behaving recklessly.
  • The prefrontal cortex serves a variety of important functions which help us perform our daily tasks with ease. Executive functioning includes decision-making skills, planning and executing tasks, making mental maps, ability to make predictions and adjust oneself accordingly, conducting cost-benefit analysis and taking decisions rationally instead of being impulsive in making decisions, processing complex information considering multiple responses at once
  • Another function of the prefrontal cortex is comprehending the language and planning the response before speaking. The prefrontal cortex helps us in selecting the appropriate words to speak in unity to the situation. Research suggests that the left side of the prefrontal cortex is responsible for processing speech and language by analyzing the words, defining meanings, and gathering responses before a person speaks.
  • Another major function of the prefrontal cortex is controlling our attention, concentration, and memory. The prefrontal cortex was believed to only deal with executive functioning. Still, several years of research have revealed that the prefrontal cortex plays a vital role in top-down control of visual attention.
  • With this, thousands of researchers have emerged advocating the clinical significance of the prefrontal cortex. It is considered one of the most important parts of the brain as it processes various important functions. The significance of the prefrontal cortex had further increased when studies revealed that the damage to the prefrontal cortex leads to severe impairment in the functioning of a person.
  • Many mental illnesses have been associated with damage or impairment in the prefrontal cortex. For example, psychiatric disorders, i.e., schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, ADHD, PTSD, Dementia, and Alzheimer’s, have been associated with the prefrontal cortex’s dysfunction.
  • Playing games, i.e., chess, puzzles, word games, and memory games, increases abilities to perform complex tasks and strengthen our prefrontal cortex. Problem-solving questions also help polish our executive skills. Going out and exploring the world also helps us utilize the prefrontal cortex to its maximum.

What is Prefrontal Cortex

Brain Anatomy

The prefrontal cortex is a part of the brain situated in the frontal lobe responsible for carrying out various vital functions in daily life. These functions include performing complex tasks, storing and retrieving memory, maintaining attention and focus, and smooth regulation of emotions. The prefrontal cortex is located in the front side of the frontal lobe right behind our forehead. According to that, the prefrontal cortex is more concerned with cognitive functioning by assessing the thoughts and executing a plan of action. It works on the concrete learning principle, and rationalizing the thoughts and acting appropriately on them is done in this region of the brain. 

Development of Prefrontal Cortex

The prefrontal cortex is the only part of the brain that develops for a longer period. It is the last part of the fully developed brain, and it is estimated that the prefrontal cortex continues to develop till the age of 25. It is because our brain develops in a back-to-front fashion. It means that the rear part of the brain starts to develop first, and the development moves from the rear to the front. The Prefrontal cortex, being situated at the front-most area, is developed in the last. It is why teenage till young adulthood is critical as in this time frame, the prefrontal cortex is still developing, and our experiences, social interactions, and learning can impact the development of this region. In teenagers, as they experience and learn from their surroundings more and more, the connections of the prefrontal cortex strengthen, and our ability to perform complex functions grows. However, this can also have an uneven or reverse effect. Structural damage or emotional issues in this age can lead to incomplete development of the prefrontal cortex. It’s why psychologists suggest that teens should be encouraged to go out and explore their surroundings and get a hands-on experience of things. It will help them mature quickly and strengthen their ability to perform executive functions in daily life. 

Structure

The brain is a very complex and interconnected organ of our body. Each part of the brain is interconnected with one another through a network of neurons. The Prefrontal cortex is located at the front side of our brain in the frontal lobe area, which is connected with our brain’s motor and pre-motors areas. Many theories are involved in explaining the prefrontal cortex structure, as with time, neuroscientists are discovering more parts and features of the prefrontal cortex. Generally, the prefrontal cortex can be divided into three major substructures according to the function they serve. These parts are as follow:

Medial Prefrontal Cortex

This part of the prefrontal cortex is responsible for attention and concentration. Motivation to initiate a task comes from this part, and it helps us maintain our attention and concentration. Any damage to this part of the prefrontal cortex can lead to inattention and lack of concentration in the person.

Lateral Prefrontal Cortex

This part of the prefrontal cortex focuses on planning and implementing daily life tasks, either simple or complex. The Lateral part helps us gather the required information, make a plan in our mind and execute it step by step. Damage can affect a person’s ability to work on a task and can result in switching between tasks or abandoning the task midway due to difficulty in execution.

Orbital Prefrontal Cortex

The Orbital Prefrontal Cortex is responsible for keeping our emotions and impulses in control. It helps us to control overwhelming emotions and refrain from behaving recklessly. It also helps us behave according to social norms and regulations instead of showing any emotional outburst. On the other hand, damage in this region can make us act impulsively due to emotional dysregulation. 

Functions of Prefrontal Cortex

The prefrontal cortex performs a variety of important functions for us. The functions of the prefrontal cortex are clustered into three major categories, which are as follow:

Executive functioning

Executive functioning refers to the superior abilities to perform tasks that make the person stand out from others. People with high achieving abilities have strong executive functioning, which makes them achieve their goals and outperform others. The executive functioning includes decision-making skills, planning and executing tasks, making mental maps, making predictions and adjusting oneself accordingly, conducting cost-benefit analysis, and making decisions rationally instead of impulsive in making decisions, processing complex information considering multiple responses. All the functions mentioned above are exclusive, and the prefrontal cortex is responsible for performing them.

Speech and Language

Another function performed by the prefrontal cortex is related to comprehension of the language and speech and planning out the response before speaking. For example, the prefrontal cortex helps us select the appropriate words to speak in unity to the situation. Research suggests that the left side of the prefrontal cortex is responsible for processing speech and language by analyzing the words, defining meanings, and gathering responses before a person speaks. It also makes use of our memory to gather words. Thus, the prefrontal cortex helps us comprehend speech and language and helps us remain focused and coherent while listening and speaking with others. 

Attention and Memory

Another major function of the prefrontal cortex is controlling our attention, concentration, and memory. Studies revealed that the prefrontal cortex only deals with executive functioning. Still, several years of research have revealed that the prefrontal cortex plays a vital role in top-down control of visual attention. The prefrontal cortex helps us maintain our attention and concentration at a particular thing, which helps us attend to the task aptly. Research shows that the prefrontal cortex also plays a vital part in storing and retrieving memory to perform complex functions. Our memory is not stored in one part of the brain but rather in multiple parts. The prefrontal cortex helps store the information in short-term memory, retrieving the information from memory and then using it in its executive tasks and actions. 

Significance of Prefrontal Cortex

In the last few decades, the research on the anatomy and neurology of the brain has gained momentum. With this, thousands of researchers have emerged advocating the clinical significance of the prefrontal cortex. The size of the prefrontal cortex is also bigger when compared with other animals. It takes more space in the human brain as compared to other animals. It shows that it is designed to carry out many more vital and complex functions and greatly impact our lives. It is now considered one of the most important parts of the brain as it processes various important functions. The clinical significance of the prefrontal cortex was magnified when they found that the damage to the prefrontal cortex can lead to severe impairment in performing complex functions, maintaining focus, and regulating emotions. It led the researchers to explore the association of the prefrontal cortex and brain damage even more. Studies have also found that having psychopathic tendencies, mental disorders, suicidal ideation, and poor mental health, in general, can cause great damage to the prefrontal cortex. It results in misinterpretation of reality which is a common symptom of psychotic disorders. People with suicidal ideation and criminal records are observed to have a weak prefrontal cortex, and they fail to regulate between what is right and what is wrong. Exercise and healthy living have been positively correlated with the healthy prefrontal cortex. People who eat healthily, sleep well and exercise daily have strong executive functioning skills. This evidence-based research helps us analyze the clinical significance of the prefrontal cortex and its importance in carrying out daily tasks in a socially accepted manner.

Illness Associated with Prefrontal cortex

Being a vital part of the brain, structural and internal damage to the prefrontal cortex is associated with multiple psychological and neurological illnesses. Apart from illness, a significant decrease in a person’s executive functioning has been observed in people with the weak or damaged prefrontal cortex. 

Mental and Neurological Illness

Many mental illnesses have been associated with damage or impairment in the prefrontal cortex. Psychiatric disorders, i.e., schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, have been associated with the prefrontal cortex’s dysfunction. A person with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder may experience a lack of executive functioning, poor impulse control, emotional dysregulation, and poor speech and language abilities. These psychiatric disorders also lead to psychosis, in which a person couldn’t specify between what is real and what isn’t. It also indicates impairment in the prefrontal cortex, and it helps us understand what is real and what isn’t.

Furthermore, damage to the frontal lobe has also been associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Damage to the prefrontal cortex of the frontal lobe region results in difficulty in maintaining focus on a single thing for a longer period. Secondly, this impairment also makes a person disinhibited, resulting in hyperreactivity and overwhelming emotional response. Post-traumatic stress disorder has also been associated with the impairment in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. 

Degeneration of the cells in the prefrontal cortex and the frontal lobe areas has been associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. A person suffering from this fails to remember things and fails to perform executive functioning of any kind.

How we can maximize the use of Prefrontal Cortex

Enhancing and strengthening our brain abilities is an ongoing process. Certain habits and exercises can help us strengthen our brain structure and function. Similarly, we can also maximize the use of the prefrontal cortex to increase our executive skills and focus. Physical activity has been associated with a sound mind and body. Eating healthy food, getting a full night’s sleep, and making exercise part of our lifestyle can boost the functioning of the prefrontal cortex. Research suggests that playing games, i.e., chess, puzzles, word games, and memory games, increase abilities to perform complex tasks and strengthen our prefrontal cortex. Solving mathematical questions, especially mental math questions, i.e., problem-solving, percentage, and probability questions, can also help polish our executive skills. Going out and exploring the world can also help us utilize the prefrontal cortex to its maximum. Comparative research between teenagers who spent their vacations at home and those who went to summer camp revealed that those who went to the summer camp got the opportunity to utilize their problem-solving, decision-making, and teamwork skills, which helped them polish their executive skills. Taking part in activities, i.e., summer camps, sports, etc., can also help us boost our prefrontal cortex. Taking part in training workshops where we can learn new skills, i.e., learning a new language, learning a new musical instrument, or learning a new skill, can also help us strengthen our ability to perform complex functions and self-control. 

Images

References

  • Carlén, M. (2017). What constitutes the prefrontal cortex?. Science, 358(6362), 478-482.
  • Dixon, M. L., Thiruchselvam, R., Todd, R., & Christoff, K. (2017). Emotion and the prefrontal cortex: An integrative review. Psychological bulletin, 143(10), 1033.
  • Funahashi, S. (2017). Working memory in the prefrontal cortex. Brain sciences, 7(5), 49.
  • Prefrontal Cortex. (2019, September 4). GoodTherapy.Org Therapy Blog. https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/psychpedia/prefrontal-cortex
  • Raos, V., & Savaki, H. E. (2017). The role of the prefrontal cortex in action perception. Cerebral Cortex, 27(10), 4677-4690.
  • Uytun, M. C. (2018). Development period of prefrontal cortex. In Prefrontal Cortex. IntechOpen.
  • Domenech, P., & Koechlin, E. (2015). Executive control and decision-making in the prefrontal cortex. Current opinion in behavioral sciences, 1, 101-106.10 Exercises for Your Prefrontal Cortex. (2021, February 2). Heart-Mind Online. https://heartmindonline.org/resources/10-exercises-for-your-prefrontal-cortex