In a nutshell: A review of studies that map where executive control decisions are made in the brain upends influential model and reveals similarities with our primate relatives.

You sit in the cinema and your phone buzzes in your pocket. Overriding that instinctive urge to check your phone is the job of the brain’s executive control system. It ensures you don’t make bad decisions based on impulse alone.

According to the influential ‘conflict-monitoring’ model, proposed by Matthew Botvinick (who was recently snapped up by Google’s DeepMind) and colleagues 15 years ago, a region of our frontal lobe called the anterior cingulate cortex, or ACC, is responsible for identifying these moments of conflict and adjusting our behaviour so that we take a prudent course of action (don’t touch that phone!).

But the model, based largely on brain imaging studies of people making such conflict-laden decisions, hasn’t always fit the evidence.

In 2007, work by ARC Centre of Excellence for Integrative Brain Function associate investigator Farshad Mansouri, then at the RIKEN Brain Sciences Institute in Japan, showed that monkeys with damage to their ACC navigate decision-making conflicts without difficulty.

Since then, neuroscientists have debated whether anatomical differences in human and monkey brains are the reason.

In this paper, Mansouri and colleagues suggest this isn’t the case. The review of dozens of published research findings suggests that humans and monkeys are remarkably similar in the way their brains deal with conflict, and that the ACC isn’t the sole region involved in conflict detection either.

Instead, they suggest that a distributed network of brain regions – including, but not limited to the ACC – are involved in decision-making on the fly. They also propose that conflict between options comprises just one of a constellation of factors – including risk, novelty and uncertainty – that helps to dial up executive control when needed.

Next steps:
Mansouri’s team will use behavioural studies, direct recordings of brain cell activity, and non-invasive brain stimulation techniques to investigate how different brain areas interact during decision-making when there are several competing choices. They will also map the neural network involved in these processes.

Mansouri, F.A., Egner, T., & Buckley, M.J. (2016) Monitoring Demands for Executive Control: Shared Functions between Human and Nonhuman Primates. Trends in Neurosciences.

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