Prefrontal cortex: functions and associated disorders

The human brain is made up of many structures, being one of the most visible and the one that takes the longest for the cortex to develop, the superficial part full of folds that we have all ever seen drawn or photographed. This cortex is an essential and very important part for human beings, as it allows the integration and processing of different information and allows the existence of complex skills such as abstract thinking, self-awareness and planning. .

The cerebral cortex can be divided into two clearly demarcated right and left hemispheres, as well as several different cerebral lobes. In our species, the largest of them and the one that in turn generates the most research is the frontal lobe, of which one of the most important parts is the prefrontal cortex, Which actively participates in enabling the adaptive behavior of the individual and even in the establishment of specific personality characteristics.

    The prefrontal cortex: location in the brain

    As we have seen, the prefrontal cortex is part of the cerebral cortex that belongs to the frontal lobe. It is located in the part of the brain closest to the face. It is considered a multimodal or tertiary association area because it coordinates information from other areas of the brain. It is a large area of ​​the brain of great importance in explaining behavioral control, personality and even cognitive abilities.

    This part of the neoscort it is the region of the brain that takes the longest to develop, Since in fact it is considered that its development does not end until the beginning of adulthood between the twenty and twenty years. Cognitive processes and executive functions could not be achieved without their participation, so we are faced with one of the most relevant areas when it comes to adapting our behavior to situations and performing complex cognitive operations. .

    The prefrontal cortex has important connections with a large number of both cortical and subcortical brain regions, such as the limbic system, basal ganglia, hippocampus, thalamus, and other brain lobes. This is why it influences and is influenced by a large amount of information from very different regions, being essential for a good management of behavior and of our resources.

    The subdivisions of this part of the brain

    Although the prefrontal cortex is part of the frontal lobe, it has often been divided into several structures, all of which are of great importance. Three of the most important circuits that are part of the pre-front are as follows.

    1. Orbitofrontal cortex

    The orbitofrontal cortex is probably one of the best-known regions of the prefrontal cortex. This area is particularly important for controlling the responses we give socially, as well as inhibit unacceptable behavior and to control aggression.

    2. Dorsolateral cortex

    This part of the brain is one of the most developed in humans. It is mainly responsible for processing cognitive information and it is one of the main regions of the front-line which are linked to the executive functions which allow us to plan, to solve problems, to memorize or to form ideas. It is also considered to have a strong connection with the capacity for self-awareness.

    3. Ventromedial cortex

    The ventromedial part of the prefrontal cortex is particularly related to the perception and expression of emotions, As well as the ability to motivate human beings (this is especially responsible for the anterior cingulate), the control or inhibition of responses to the environment and the creative ability.

    Functions of the prefrontal

    The prefrontal cortex is an area of ​​great importance for our survival in the environment in which we live and our coexistence in society. The functions of this brain region are multiple, Which integrates and coordinates a large number of processes.

    Some of them are listed below.

    1. Executive functions

    The prefrontal cortex is best known to be the region of the brain most closely related to executive functions. They are defined as such the set of fundamentally cognitive skills and aptitudes which allow adaptation to the environment and the resolution of problems from the integration of various information and the prediction and realization of behaviors based on them.

    These functions include the ability to anticipate, set goals, and initiate and sustain action, decision making and behavior inhibition, Planning based on memory, the ability to modify our strategies or develop abstract concepts and ideas.

    2. Attention, memory and intelligence

    Attention-fixing or working memory is also involved in the prefrontal cortex, as is cognitive and adaptive capacity in the environment. That’s not to say it’s the only area dedicated for these purposes, but it has a very high turnout.

    3. Social conduct

    Another of the main functions of the prefrontal is the control of social behavior. Based on our interactions and the learning from them and the rest of the information we capture, we are able to regulate our expressions and behaviors, Feel empathy, restrict behavior based on possible consequences and consider points of view other than your own.

    4. Motivation

    Linking emotion and cognition to establish a plan to perform certain actions is also a cause of the proper functioning of the prefrontal cortex. Thus, we are able to motivate ourselves and orient our conduct towards the achievement of an objective that appeals to us.

    5. Emotionalism

    While the limbic system is most closely related to the field of emotions, the prefrontal region of the brain is of great importance for both perceiving and expressing emotions, resulting in physiological reactions or allowing their conscious control.

    personality

    Different aspects of the personality are largely influenced by the functioning of the prefrontal cortex. The establishment of more or less stable patterns of behavior in various aspects of life, and typical characteristics such as inhibition or shyness, Or responsibility are some of the elements involved in this region of the brain.

    Injuries in this area of ​​the brain

    The presence of injuries in the prefrontal region can lead to serious alterations in the psyche and abilities of people. Specifically, it can lead to loss of emotional expression (especially in the face), impulse control deficit, disinhibition, personality changes, antisocial behavior, hypersexuality and hyperoralism, severe failures of planning, judgment and deferral of rewards. Thought also flattened, slowed down and with little creative capacity.

    These aspects can be seen in a large number of cases, such as injuries caused by traumatic brain injury or dementias such as frontotemporals or Huntington’s chorea.

    An example of prefrontal lesions: the case of Phineas Gage

    One of the best known and first documented cases of a prefrontal injury is the case of Phineas Gage, a young man who, while preparing explosives for it, made an iron bar penetrate through the prefrontal cortex and more specifically the orbitofrontal part. The young man managed to survive the crash and recover from the injuries.

    However, over time it became apparent that Phineas Gage had changed: he had become aggressive, impulsive and hostile, with little ability to wait and unable to plan or maintain actions on time. On top of that, he is said to suffer from epilepsy, a problem that caused his death at the age of 38 after losing his job, his family and his parents. friends.

    Bibliographical references:

    • Goldberg, I. (2009). The executive brain: frontal lobes and the civilized mind. Critical.

    • Kandel, ER; Schwartz, JH; Jessell, TM (2001). Principles of neuroscience. Madrird: MacGrawHill.

    • Kolb, B. and Wishaw, I. (2006). Human neuropsychology. Madrid: Editorial Mèdica Panamericana.

    • Pineda, D. (2000) Executive function and its disorders. In: Journal of Neurology, 30 (8) 764.

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