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Original Research ARTICLE

Front. Hum. Neurosci., 21 November 2011 | http://dx.doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2011.00142

Rapid transfer of abstract rules to novel contexts in human lateral prefrontal cortex

Michael W. Cole1*, Joset A. Etzel1, Jeffrey M. Zacks1, Walter Schneider2 and Todd S. Braver1
  • 1 Psychology Department, Washington University in St. Louis, MO, USA
  • 2 Department of Psychology, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA, USA

Flexible, adaptive behavior is thought to rely on abstract rule representations within lateral prefrontal cortex (LPFC), yet it remains unclear how these representations provide such flexibility. We recently demonstrated that humans can learn complex novel tasks in seconds. Here we hypothesized that this impressive mental flexibility may be possible due to rapid transfer of practiced rule representations within LPFC to novel task contexts. We tested this hypothesis using functional MRI and multivariate pattern analysis, classifying LPFC activity patterns across 64 tasks. Classifiers trained to identify abstract rules based on practiced task activity patterns successfully generalized to novel tasks. This suggests humans can transfer practiced rule representations within LPFC to rapidly learn new tasks, facilitating cognitive performance in novel circumstances.

Keywords: intelligence, cognitive control, rapid instructed task learning, multivariate pattern analysis, fMRI

Citation: Cole MW, Etzel JA, Zacks JM, Schneider W and Braver TS (2011) Rapid transfer of abstract rules to novel contexts in human lateral prefrontal cortex. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 5:142. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2011.00142

Received: 22 July 2011; Paper pending published: 26 August 2011;
Accepted: 02 November 2011; Published online: 21 November 2011.

Edited by:

Tor Wager, Columbia University, USA

Reviewed by:

Claude Alain, Rotman Research Institute, Canada
Katya Rubia, King’s College London, UK

Copyright: © 2011 Cole, Etzel, Zacks, Schneider and Braver. This is an open-access article subject to a non-exclusive license between the authors and Frontiers Media SA, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in other forums, provided the original authors and source are credited and other Frontiers conditions are complied with.

*Correspondence: Michael W. Cole, Psychology Department, Washington University in St. Louis, 1 Brookings Drive, Campus Box 1125, St. Louis, MO 63130, USA. e-mail: mwcole@mwcole.net