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Master planners in brain may coordinate other areas' roles in cognitive tasks

Scientists have used data from scans of 183 subjects to identify brain areas that consistently become active in a variety of cognitive tasks, such as reading, learning a rhythm or analyzing a picture.

If the brain in action can be compared to a symphony, with specialized sections required to pitch in at the right time to produce the desired melody, then the regions highlighted by the new study may be likened to conductors, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis assert.

"They appear to be helping to determine which brain regions will contribute to a cognitive task and when those regions will play a part in that task," says lead author Nico Dosenbach, an M.D./Ph.D. student. "Every time you move from not working on a task to working on a task, these areas seem to become active."

The study, published in the June 1 issue of Neuron, highlighted three regions, the dorsal anterior cingulate and the left and right frontal operculum. The cingulate is found near the midline of the top of the brain; the opercula are at the base of the brain in both the left and right hemispheres.

"For years, when you looked at maps of what different parts of the brain do, the opercula have often been blank," notes senior author Steven Petersen, Ph.D., James S. McDonnell Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience; professor of neuroscience, of neurobiology and of radiology; and associate professor of neurological surgery. "We have been struggling to figure out what they do, and now these data suggest the opercula may be involved in the creation of what neuroscientists call a task set."

Task sets are plans for accessing different parts of the brain to achieve a goal, such as reading the word "dog," coming up with verbs associated with the word "dog" or determining the color of the letters in the word "dog."

Much of the human brain's power derives from what Petersen calls "flexible configuration of processing systems," or the
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Source:Washington University School of Medicine


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