Emotion and the Prefrontal Cortex: An Integrative Review

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Abstract

The prefrontal cortex (PFC) plays a critical role in the generation and regulation of emotion. However, we lack an integrative framework for understanding how different emotion-related functions are organized across the entire expanse of the PFC, as prior reviews have generally focused on specific emotional processes (e.g., decision making) or specific anatomical regions (e.g., orbitofrontal cortex). Additionally, psychological theories and neuroscientific investigations have proceeded largely independently because of the lack of a common framework. Here, we provide a comprehensive review of functional neuroimaging, electrophysiological, lesion, and structural connectivity studies on the emotion-related functions of 8 subregions spanning the entire PFC. We introduce the appraisal-by-content model, which provides a new framework for integrating the diverse range of empirical findings. Within this framework, appraisal serves as a unifying principle for understanding the PFC’s role in emotion, while relative content-specialization serves as a differentiating principle for understanding the role of each subregion. A synthesis of data from affective, social, and cognitive neuroscience studies suggests that different PFC subregions are preferentially involved in assigning value to specific types of inputs: exteroceptive sensations, episodic memories and imagined future events, viscero-sensory signals, viscero-motor signals, actions, others’ mental states (e.g., intentions), self-related information, and ongoing emotions. We discuss the implications of this integrative framework for understanding emotion regulation, value-based decision making, emotional salience, and refining theoretical models of emotion. This framework provides a unified understanding of how emotional processes are organized across PFC subregions and generates new hypotheses about the mechanisms underlying adaptive and maladaptive emotional functioning.

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