The human brain is made up of many structures, one of the most visible and the one that takes the longest to develop is the cortex, the superficial and folded part that we have all seen drawn or photographed. This crust is an essential part and of great importance for the human being, since it allows the integration and processing of different information and makes possible the existence of complex skills such as abstract thinking, self-awareness and planning.
The cerebral cortex can be divided into two clearly demarcated hemispheres on the right and left, as well as into several different brain lobes. In our species, the largest of these and the one that generates the most research is the frontal lobe, of which one of the most relevant parts is the prefrontal cortex , which actively participates in allowing the adaptive behavior of the individual and even the establishment of specific personality characteristics.
The prefrontal cortex: location in the brain
As we have seen, the prefrontal cortex is a part of the cerebral cortex belonging 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, since information from other brain areas is coordinated there. It is a large brain area with great importance in explaining behavioural control, personality and even cognitive abilities.
This part of the neocortex is the region of the brain that takes the longest to develop , since it is not considered to end its development until early adulthood between the ages of twenty and twenty-five. Cognitive processes and executive functions could not be carried out 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, the basal ganglia, the hippocampus, the thalamus and the remaining brain lobes. That is why it influences and is influenced by a great amount of information coming from very diverse regions, being essential for the correct management of behavior and our resources.
The subdivisions of this part of the brain
Although the prefrontal cortex is a part of the frontal lobe, it has often been divided into various structures, all of which are of great importance. Three of the most important circuits that are part of the prefrontal are as follows.
1. Orbitofrontal cortex
The orbitofrontal cortex is probably one of the best known regions of the prefrontal cortex. This area is especially important for controlling our social responses as well as inhibiting unacceptable behaviour and controlling aggression.
2. Dorsolateral bark
This part of the brain is one of the most developed in the human being. It is mainly in charge of processing cognitive information and is one of the main regions of the prefrontal that are linked to the executive functions that allow us to plan, solve problems, memorize or form ideas. It is also considered to have a strong link with the capacity for self-awareness.
3. Ventromedial bark
The ventromedial part of the prefrontal cortex is especially linked to the perception and expression of emotions , as well as to the capacity of motivation of the human being (this is especially taken care of by the anterior cingulate), the control or inhibition of the responses given to the environment and the creative capacity.
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. There are multiple functions of this brain region , which integrates and coordinates a large number of processes.
Some of these are detailed below.
1. Executive functions
The prefrontal cortex is especially known for being the region of the brain most closely linked to executive functions . These are defined as the set of fundamentally cognitive skills and abilities that allow adaptation to the environment and the resolution of problems through the integration of diverse information and the prediction and implementation of behaviours based on them.
Within these functions we find the capacity for anticipation, the setting of goals and the initiation and maintenance of action, decision making and inhibition of behaviour , planning based on memory, the capacity to modify our strategies or to elaborate concepts and abstract ideas.
2. Attention, memory and intelligence
Fixation of attention or working memory is also mediated by the prefrontal cortex, as is cognitive and environmental adaptation capacity. This does not mean that it is the only area dedicated to these ends, but it does have a very high participation.
3. Social behaviour
Another of the main functions of the prefrontal is the control of social behavior. Based on our interactions and the learning extracted from them as well as from the rest of the information we capture, we are able to regulate our expressions and behaviour , feel empathy, restrict behaviour based on possible consequences and consider other points of view outside our own.
Linking emotion and cognition so that we establish a plan to carry out certain actions is also due to the proper functioning of the prefrontal cortex. Thus, we are able to motivate ourselves and to direct our behaviour towards the achievement of a goal that seduces us.
Although it is the limbic system that has the greatest connection with the field of emotions, the prefrontal region of the brain is of great importance both when perceiving and expressing emotions, translating them into physiological reactions or allowing their conscious control .
Different aspects of personality are largely mediated by the functioning of the prefrontal cortex. The establishment of more or less stable behaviour patterns in the various aspects of life, and typical characteristics such as inhibition or shyness , or responsibility are some of the elements mediated by this brain region.
Injuries in this brain area
The presence of injuries in the prefrontal area can cause serious alterations in people’s psyche and abilities. Specifically, it can lead to loss of emotional expression (especially at the facial level), deficits in impulse control, disinhibition, personality changes, antisocial behavior, hypersexuality and hyperorality, serious failures in planning, judgment and postponement of rewards. Also flattened thinking, slowed down and with little creative capacity.
These aspects can be seen in a large number of cases, such as injuries produced by head trauma or dementias such as frontotemporal or Huntington’s chorea.
An example of prefrontal injury: the case of Phineas Gage
One of the best known and first documented cases of prefrontal injury is the case of Phineas Gage, a young man who while preparing explosives for the purpose, caused an iron bar to penetrate his head through the prefrontal cortex and specifically the orbitofrontal part. The young man managed to survive the accident and recover from his injuries.
However, as time went by it became evident that Phineas Gage had changed: he had become aggressive, impulsive and hostile, with little ability to wait and unable to plan actions or to keep them in time. In addition, he would suffer from epilepsy, a problem that led to his death at the age of 38 after losing his job, family and friends.
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- Pineda, D. (2000) La función ejecutiva y sus trastornos. In: Journal of Neurology, 30 (8) 764.