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Behavioral flexibility is associated with changes in structure and function distributed across a frontal cortical network in macaques

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Jérôme Sallet, Mary Ann P. Noonan, Adam Thomas, Jill X. O'Reilly, Jesper Anderson, Georgios K. Papageorgiou, Franz X. Neubert, Bashir Ahmed, Jackson Smith, Andrew H. Bell, Mark J. Buckley, Léa Roumazeilles, Steven Cuell, Mark E. Walton, Kristine Krug, Rogier B. Mars, Matthew F.S. Rushworth

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere3000605
JournalPLoS Biology
Issue number5
PublishedMay 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information: JS is funded by a Wellcome Trust Henry Dale Fellowship (105651/Z/14/Z). MPN is supported by an Academy of Medical Sciences and Wellcome Trust Springboard fund SBF003\1143. KK, AHB, MEW, and MFSR are funded by the Wellcome Trust Strategic Award 101092/Z/13/Z. KK is also funded by BBSRC grant BB/H016902/. The work of RBM is supported by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) UK [BB/N019814/1] and the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research NWO [452-13-015]. The Wellcome Centre for Integrative Neuroimaging is supported by core funding from the Wellcome Trust [203139/Z/16/Z]. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

King's Authors


One of the most influential accounts of central orbitofrontal cortex-that it mediates behavioral flexibility-has been challenged by the finding that discrimination reversal in macaques, the classic test of behavioral flexibility, is unaffected when lesions are made by excitotoxin injection rather than aspiration. This suggests that the critical brain circuit mediating behavioral flexibility in reversal tasks lies beyond the central orbitofrontal cortex. To determine its identity, a group of nine macaques were taught discrimination reversal learning tasks, and its impact on gray matter was measured. Magnetic resonance imaging scans were taken before and after learning and compared with scans from two control groups, each comprising 10 animals. One control group learned discrimination tasks that were similar but lacked any reversal component, and the other control group engaged in no learning. Gray matter changes were prominent in posterior orbitofrontal cortex/anterior insula but were also found in three other frontal cortical regions: lateral orbitofrontal cortex (orbital part of area 12 [12o]), cingulate cortex, and lateral prefrontal cortex. In a second analysis, neural activity in posterior orbitofrontal cortex/anterior insula was measured at rest, and its pattern of coupling with the other frontal cortical regions was assessed. Activity coupling increased significantly in the reversal learning group in comparison with controls. In a final set of experiments, we used similar structural imaging procedures and analyses to demonstrate that aspiration lesion of central orbitofrontal cortex, of the type known to affect discrimination learning, affected structure and activity in the same frontal cortical circuit. The results identify a distributed frontal cortical circuit associated with behavioral flexibility.

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