Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

Dissociating Affective Evaluation and Social Cognitive Processes in the Ventral Medial Prefrontal Cortex

Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

Dissociating Affective Evaluation and Social Cognitive Processes in the Ventral Medial Prefrontal Cortex

Article excerpt

In recent studies, various regions of the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) have been implicated in at least two potentially different mental functions: reasoning about the minds of other people (social cognition) and processing reward related information (affective evaluation). In this study, we test whether the activation in a specific area of the vmPFC, the para-anterior cingulate cortex (PACC), correlates with the reward value of stimuli in general or is specifically associated with social cognition. Participants performed a time estimation task with trial-to-trial feedback in which reward and social context were manipulated separately. Reward was manipulated by giving either positive or negative feedback in the form of small squirts of fluid delivered orally. Social context was manipulated by instructing participants that positive and negative feedback was determined by another person or a computer. The data demonstrate a main effect of feedback, but not social context, in the PACC, suggesting that this area of the vmPFC serves a general function in evaluating and/or representing reward value. In addition, activity in a more anterior subregion of the vmPFC demonstrated reward-related sensitivity only in the social context Another area that showed a similar interaction was the subgenual cingulate, but this region was only sensitive to negative feedback in the social condition. These findings suggest that, within the vmPFC, the PACC subserves primarily an affective function, whereas in other regions social context can modulate affective responses.

Decision making under uncertainty is central to human mental function and involves a complex process of assigning values to different options, followed by choosing the option with the highest expected value. There is a large and growing literature on the use of neuroimaging methods to identify the neural mechanisms underlying the evaluation and representation of reward information (see Montague, King-Casas, & Cohen, 2006, for a review). These studies have consistently implicated specific regions of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) in reward processing. In human social interaction, the representation of reward values associated with specific outcomes is often dependent on the behavior of other individuals. Therefore, in such circumstances, it is necessary to make correct inferences about the minds of others. The ability to make inferences about mental states, such as goals and beliefs, is generally referred to as "theory of mind" (ToM; Premack & Woodruff, 1978). Neuroimaging studies involving social interaction have also identified regions of the vmPFC as playing a central role in ToM processes. Some of these regions are identical to those identified in reward processing in studies that do not involve social interaction. This raises the question of the extent to which regions of the vmPFC are specifically dedicated to reward processing (affective processing) versus ToM (social cognition)-or to both.

To date, most studies have focused on either reward representation (e.g., Breiter, Aharon, Kahneman, Dale, & Shizgal, 2001 ; Knutson, Adams, Fong, & Hommer, 2001 ; O'Doherty et al., 2003) or social cognition (e.g., Castelli, Happé, Frith, & Frith, 2005; Gallagher et al., 2000; Gallagher, Jack, Roepstorff, & Frith, 2002) but have not explicitly attempted to dissociate these two processes. A review of the literature suggests that reward representation (affective/evaluative processing) and ToM (social cognitive processing) may rely on separate, nonoverlapping networks. However, there is one area that is commonly reported to be part of both networks: the vmPFC. The vmPFC consists roughly of Brodmann areas 10 and 32, rostral to the anterior cingulate cortex and between the medial orbitofrontal cortex (area 14) and the more posterior areas of the medial frontal cortex including areas 8, 9, and 24 (Amodio & Frith, 2006). We consider this to be a geographical pointer to an area that consists of distinct anatomical and functional areas. …

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