Monkey Prefrontal Neurons Reflect Logical Operations for Cognitive Control in a Variant of the AX Continuous Performance Task (AX-CPT)

Journal of Neuroscience - 2016-04-06Blackman R, Crowe D, DeNicola A, Sakellaridi S, MacDonald III AW, Chafee M10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3578-15.2016
Cognitive control is the ability to modify the behavioral response to a stimulus based on internal representations of goals or rules. We sought to characterize neural mechanisms in prefrontal cortex associated with cognitive control in a context that would maximize the potential for future translational relevance to human neuropsychiatric disease. To that end, we trained monkeys to perform a dot-pattern variant of the AX continuous performance task that is used to measure cognitive control impairment in patients with schizophrenia (MacDonald, 2008; Jones et al., 2010). Here we describe how information processing for cognitive control in this task is related to neural activity patterns in prefrontal cortex of monkeys, to advance our understanding of how behavioral flexibility is implemented by prefrontal neurons in general, and to model neural signals in the healthy brain that may be disrupted to produce cognitive control deficits in schizophrenia. We found that the neural representation of stimuli in prefrontal cortex is strongly biased toward stimuli that inhibit prepotent or automatic responses. We also found that population signals encoding different stimuli were modulated to overlap in time specifically in the case that information from multiple stimuli had to be integrated to select a conditional response. Finally, population signals relating to the motor response were biased toward less frequent and therefore less automatic actions. These data relate neuronal activity patterns in prefrontal cortex to logical information processing operations required for cognitive control, and they characterize neural events that may be disrupted in schizophrenia.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Functional imaging studies have demonstrated that cognitive control deficits in schizophrenia are associated with reduced activation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (MacDonald et al., 2005). However, these data do not reveal how the disease has disrupted the function of prefrontal neurons to produce the observed deficits in cognitive control. Relating cognitive control to neurophysiological signals at a cellular level in prefrontal cortex is a necessary first step toward understanding how disruption of these signals could lead to cognitive control failure in neuropsychiatric disease. To that end, we translated a task that measures cognitive control deficits in patients with schizophrenia to monkeys and describe here how neural signals in prefrontal cortex relate to performance.