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Subproject II (Dr. Fiebach)

Neurocognitive mechanisms  of goal management

The ability to plan and solve complex problems is crucial for intelligent human behavior in a multitude of domains such as school, work, and everyday life. Problem solving is driven by goals: We have problems to solve when our goals are not immediately achievable. Problem solving therefore requires the ability to maintain goals and subgoals over time, to resolve goal conflicts, and to adapt behavioral goals to environmental changes. This ensemble of goal-related behaviors will be referred to as ‘goal management’ in the following. 

The neurophysiological bases of goal management processes have not been explored systematically so far. Human functional neuroimaging studies show that fronto-polar cortex is strongly activated when planning demands are high (e.g., Baker et al., 1996), possibly as a result of the need to perform one or more subgoal tasks in the service of the primary task goal (Koechlin et al., 1999; Braver & Bongiolatti, 2002). However, it is unclear (i) what the exact contribution of frontopolar cortex – and of other prefrontal and posterior brain regions – to goal management is, and (ii) whether sub-regions of the prefrontal cortex hold a specific goal representation or contribute more general, executive or control functions to goal-directed behavior (Jonides, 1995). The present project aims at specifiying neural correlates of several sub-processes of goal management, at testing whether these neurocognitive mechanisms are goal-specific or of a more general nature, and finally at exploring the degree to which these neurocognitive goal management mechanisms  function depend upon individual differences in basic cognitive abilities and performance motivations.

To this end, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is used to identify brain regions involved in goal and subgoal maintenance, task rule maintenance (as opposed to goal maintenance), as well as the processing of goal valence, goal conflict and goal adaptation. The relation between goal-related brain activity and individual differences in behavioral measures of basic cognition and motivation will be explored in collaboration with Project I. Neurological patients with frontopolar and lateral prefrontal lesions will be studied behaviorally to determine the necessity of these brain regions for goal management processes. In cooperation with Project III, electroencephalography (EEG) will be  used to examine the temporal dynamics of brain areas related to goal management. FMRI and EEG data will be analyzed jointly in order to determine the coupling between brain regions at a fine-grained temporal scale.

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