Studying these cells could lead to new treatments for diseases ranging from gastrointestinal disease to diabetes.
Neurons in the prefrontal cortex have complex properties commensurate with a role in "executive" brain function, Associate Professor Earl K. Miller reported.
Miller, the Class of '56 Associate Professor of Neuroscience and associate director of the Center for Learning and Memory, organized a AAAS symposium titled "The Prefrontal Cortex and Cognition: New Insights into Willful Behavior." He spoke on "Prefrontal Cortex and the Neural Basis of Cognitive Control."
Controlling everyday thoughts and decisions has long been thought to depend on the prefrontal cortex, a brain region associated with thoughtful, intelligent behavior: the ability to ignore distractions, keep "on task" and control impulses.
Results from Miller's laboratory have shown that prefrontal cortex neurons are involved in directing attention, in recalling stored memories and integrating the diverse information needed for a given goal.
Perhaps most important, Miller said, prefrontal cortex neurons transmit acquired knowledge. Their activity reflects learned task contingencies, concepts and rules.
In short, they seem to underlie our internal representations of the "rules of the game." This may provide the necessary foundation for the complex behavior of primates, in whom this structure is most elaborate.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 27, 2002.