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Prefrontal cortex: functions and associated disorders

Prefrontal cortex: functions and associated disorders

March 29, 2024

The human brain is shaped by many structures, being one of the most visible and the one that takes longer to develop the cortex, the surface part and full of creases that we have all seen at one time or in photography. This bark is an essential part of great importance for the human being, it allows the integration and processing of different information and enables the existence of complex skills such as abstract thinking, self-awareness and planning.

The cerebral cortex can be divided into two clearly delimitable hemispheres on the right and left, as well as on several different brain 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 relevant parts is the prefrontal cortex , that participates actively in allowing the adaptive behavior of the individual and even the establishment of concrete characteristics of the personality.

  • Related article: "The lobes of the brain and its various functions"

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 an area of ​​multimodal or tertiary association, since it coordinates information from other brain areas. It is a large brain area with great importance when it comes to explaining behavioral control, personality and even cognitive abilities.

This part of the neocortex is the region of the brain that takes the longest to develop , since in fact it is considered that it does not end its development until the beginning of adulthood between twenty and twenty-five years of age. Cognitive processes and executive functions could not be carried out without their participation, so that we are facing one of the most relevant areas at the time of being able to adapt our behavior to situations and perform complex cognitive operations.

The prefrontal cortex has important connections with a large number of cerebral regions both cortical and subcortical, such as the limbic system, the basal ganglia, the hippocampus, the thalamus and the rest of the cerebral lobes. That is why it influences and is influenced by a large amount of information from very different 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 frequently been divided into several structures, all of them of great importance. Three of the most important circuits that are part of the prefrontal are the following.

1. Orbitofrontal cortex

The orbitofrontal cortex is probably one of the most familiar regions of the prefrontal cortex. This area is especially important in order to control the responses we give socially, as well as to inhibit unacceptable behaviors and the control of aggressiveness.

2. Dorsolateral cortex

This part of the brain is one of the most developed in the human being. It is mainly responsible for processing cognitive information and it is one of the main prefrontal regions that are linked to executive functions that allow us to plan, solve problems, memorize or form ideas. It is considered that it also has a strong link with the capacity for self-awareness.

3. Ventromedial cortex

The ventromedial part of the prefrontal cortex is especially linked to the perception and expression of emotions , as well as the motivation of the human being (this is especially the responsibility of the anterior cingulate), the control or inhibition of the answers 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. The functions of this brain region are multiple , which integrates and coordinates a large number of processes.

Some of them are those detailed below.

1. Executive functions

The prefrontal cortex is especially known for being the brain region is more linked to the executive functions . They are defined as the set of skills and fundamentally cognitive skills that allow adaptation to the environment and the resolution of problems from the integration of various information and the prediction and conduct of behavior based on them.

Within these functions we find the capacity of anticipation, the setting of goals and the beginning and maintenance of the action, the decision making and the inhibition of behavior , planning based on memory, the ability to modify our strategies or to elaborate concepts and abstract ideas.

2. Attention, memory and intelligence

The fixation of attention or working memory are also mediated by the prefrontal cortex, as well as the cognitive capacity and adaptation to the environment. This does not mean that it is the only area dedicated to these purposes, but it does have a very high participation.

3. Social behavior

Another of the main functions of the prefrontal is the control of social behavior. Based on our interactions and the learning extracted both from them and from 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 other points of view that are alien to one's own.

4. Motivation

Linking emotion and cognition so that we establish a plan to carry out certain actions is also due to the good functioning of the prefrontal cortex. Thus, we are able to motivate ourselves and directing our conduct towards the achievement of a goal that seduces us

5. Emotionality

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 your conscious control .


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

Injuries in this brain area

The presence of lesions in the prefrontal area can cause serious alterations in the psyche and the capabilities of people. Specifically, it can generate the loss of emotional expression (especially at the facial level), deficit in the control of impulses, disinhibition, personality changes, antisocial behavior, hypersexuality and hyperorality, serious planning failures, ability to judge and postpone rewards. Also thought 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 injuries or dementias such as frontotemporal or Huntington's chorea.

An example of prefrontal injuries: the case of Phineas Gage

One of the best known cases and the first to be documented of a lesion in the prefrontal is the case of Phineas Gage, a young man who was preparing explosives for the purpose, which 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 the injuries.

However over time it became clear that Phineas Gage had changed: he had become aggressive, impulsive and hostile, with little ability to wait and being unable to plan actions or keep them in time. In addition to this he would suffer epilepsy, a problem that caused his death at 38 years of age after losing work, family and friends.

Bibliographic references:

  • Goldberg, E. (2009). The executive brain: frontal lobes and civilized mind. Review.
  • Kandel, E.R .; Schwartz, J.H .; Jessell, T.M. (2001). Principles of Neuroscience. Madrird: MacGrawHill.
  • Kolb, B. & Wishaw, I. (2006). Human neuropsychology Madrid: Panamericana Medical Publishing House.
  • Pineda, D. (2000) Executive function and its disorders. In: Revista de Neurología, 30 (8) 764.

Ask Dr Kan Show Episode109 - How to improve frontal lobe function (March 2024).

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