Dissociable Frontal–Striatal and Frontal–Parietal Networks Involved in Updating Hierarchical Contexts in Working Memory

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Recent theories propose that the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is organized in a hierarchical fashion with more abstract, higher level information represented in anterior regions and more concrete, lower level information represented in posterior regions. This hierarchical organization affords flexible adjustments of action plans based on the context. Computational models suggest that such hierarchical organization in the PFC is achieved through interactions with the basal ganglia (BG) wherein the BG gate relevant contexts into the PFC. Here, we tested this proposal using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Participants were scanned while updating working memory (WM) with 2 levels of hierarchical contexts. Consistent with PFC abstraction proposals, higher level context updates involved anterior portions of the PFC (BA 46), whereas lower level context updates involved posterior portions of the PFC (BA 6). Computational models were only partially supported as the BG were sensitive to higher, but not lower level context updates. The posterior parietal cortex (PPC) showed the opposite pattern. Analyses examining changes in functional connectivity confirmed dissociable roles of the anterior PFC–BG during higher level context updates and posterior PFC–PPC during lower level context updates. These results suggest that hierarchical contexts are organized by distinct frontal–striatal and frontal–parietal networks.

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