Have you ever thought how your body just reacts and does something instinctively, or how you take that extra second before crossing the road? That is all thanks to your frontal lobe, but more specifically, the prefrontal cortex; but what is its function?
The function of the prefrontal cortex is to control cognitive functions such as regulating critical body functions such as movement, creativity, impulse control, emotional responses, moral behavior, fear responses, intuition, perseverance, and self-awareness.
The prefrontal cortex can be summarised as making up the person you are, how you process everyday situations, and how you react to fear, love and anger. Let’s look at the prefrontal cortex more in-depth and delve into this part of the brain.
What Are The Critical Functions Of The Prefrontal Cortex?
The prefrontal cortex is situated in the frontal lobes of the brain. It has everything to do with the higher-level functions of the brain in day-to-day events. The prefrontal cortex is divided into three parts: the DLPFC or Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex, the OFC or Orbitofrontal Cortex, and the VMPFC or Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex.
The DLPFT / Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex
The topmost part of the entire prefrontal cortex is called the Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. It manages the areas of working memory, cognitive functions or flexibility, and planning. This area specializes in directing and maintaining attention on a task as well as problem-solving
While a person is focused on a task, the working memory becomes engaged with the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. It connects with the hippocampus to consolidate and retrieve long-term memories.
If a person suffers an injury or dysfunction in this area, it can affect the verbal expression integration with emotions, working and long-term memory, and processing in the hippocampus.
This memory deficit is observed in people diagnosed with PTSD. This is because the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is underactive. On the opposite side, other deficits manifest as low spontaneity and ADD due to the inability to maintain focus.
The left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex manages approach behavior, and the right side deals with avoidant behaviors.
The OFC / Orbitofrontal Cortex
The orbitofrontal cortex is involved in cognitively processing our decision-making but, more accurately, the decisions made based on our emotions. The reason is that the OFC is closely connected to the limbic system.
The orbitofrontal cortex plays a prominent role in the regulation of emotions and how social attachments are formed. Emotional and sensory information accumulates here and is processed accordingly, integrating internal and external interactions.
From these important interactions, the OFC interprets these into categories and chooses the appropriate response, such as grasping a joke, to determine if the joke was funny or sarcastic.
By reading body language, the OFC can assist in helping a person predict another person’s behavior, thereby adjusting our behavior accordingly. The OFC is also different in hemispherical functions. The right side of the OFC deals with negative emotions. The left side of the OFC deals with positive emotions.
The VMPFC / Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex
The ventromedial prefrontal cortex is connected to the temporal lobe, the olfactory system, the amygdala, the thalamus, and the ventral segmental area. Because of these connections, the VMPFC helps make decisions considering the bigger picture, not individual bits of information.
To regulate emotions, the OFC and the VMPFC work together in social situations where decisions are to be made and, if we make mistakes, to learn from that experience. When we need to make a judgment call, this area of the brain is activated and draws from the present situation and past experiences or memory.
The VMPFC can help us suppress negative feelings and emotions, boost our courage, and deal with shame, guilt, and compassion.
The Full Range Of Prefrontal Cortex Functions –
- Concentration And Attention – Such as voluntary movements on opposite sides of the body while dressing, playing an instrument, or making a sandwich.
- Language and Speech production – Accessing words and phrases and constructing sentences occurs in the dominant frontal lobe.
- Planning and organizing – different daily tasks and time management skills
- Concentration and attention – Such as studying several hours for an examination
- Problem-solving – from mathematical to untying a knot.
- Working memory – Taking recently acquired information and processing it accordingly.
- Reason and Judgement – Cognitive behavior determines how to reason in a situation and make a judgment call based on information—regulating mood and emotions and gauging other people’s emotions.
- Expression of personality traits – how motivated, happy or sad a situation makes a person.
- Controlling impulses – such as controlling behaviors in social settings.
How Are These Functions Relatable in Everyday Situations?
- Body regulation is controlled by the Automic Nervous System and works to control breathing, heart rate, digestion, inflammation, vascular tone or elasticity, immune response, homeostasis, and stress relief.
- The prefrontal cortex maintains emotional balance in the body to prevent an overwhelmed response to a situation, such as being shocked about news or being calm.
- Having response flexibility means taking a short pause before executing an action, even if there has been an influx of information.
- Being empathetic to others means that you’re consciously and compassionately aware of what they are going through, even if you are not.
- Fear modulation means the ability to identify, register and act upon a threat. The fear modulator is through the amygdala and limbic structure. GABA receptors can be trained and reprogrammed.
- Having a moral consciousness regarding the impact of socially acceptable or unacceptable behaviors. The choice between right and wrong, whether alone or in company.
- Having a gut feeling about something is when the neurons in the gut or stomach and the heart fire off a warning and how you react to that feeling.
Why Is The Prefrontal Cortex Significant?
The prefrontal cortex is so significant that your body cannot fully function without it. Here are a few interesting facts about it –
- The prefrontal cortex is found in the front area of the brain called the frontal lobes. The frontal lobes are the biggest part of the lobes of the brain, making up one-third of the cerebrum.
- Humans have the largest frontal lobes of all species because we have more advanced skills such as language, intuition, and reasoning.
- The frontal lobes are the last brain area to mature, only fully developed at age 25 to 30.
- The frontal lobes are responsible for motor functions such as movement, and the movement can be located on the motor homunculus map used by scientists to research brain function.
- A vast network of nerves connects the frontal lobes to the rest of the brain. If the frontal lobes should get damaged, they will become noticeable in other parts of the brain.
How Does The Prefrontal Cortex Develop?
The prefrontal cortex is the final part of the brain to develop fully, taking almost 30 years. Children are born with a functioning prefrontal cortex, but it is not mature as yet. It takes years to fully develop intuition and decision-making skills, for example.
As an adolescent, the brain develops a multitude of synapses, and the connections volumize the communication areas of the brain. This network branching allows for more advanced learning and decision-making skills.
As a young adolescent, the individual can make risk-based assessments and decisions, but because the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system have not fully integrated yet, their choices can still reflect their immaturity.
Many teenagers or young adolescents suffer from anxiety because their brain determines everything as a threat or a life-threatening outcome. They do not possess the rationale to distinguish between real and fiction. The brain tries to protect the young adult in this manner.
Teenagers exposed to more mature peers will develop faster, and their prefrontal cortex may develop faster.
What Happens If Your Frontal Lobe Is Damaged?
An accident that damages the frontal lobes of the brain is not necessarily life-threatening, but it can cause permanent changes in various areas of the body’s function. There are many documented frontal lobe injuries where the patients displayed personality changes.
Apart from the accidental causes, there is also a procedure known as a lobotomy that was performed on patients by Dr. Freeman believed to have various ailments such as hysteria. The lobotomy would sever the prefrontal cortex from the rest of the brain, and the changes were permanent.
Patients would display apathy, poor concentration, lack of decision-making, and withdrawal from social activities. Over 3000 lobotomies were performed by 1960.
Symptoms Of Frontal Lobe Damage
- Partial or complete paralysis on the opposite side of the injury.
- Inability to complete a sequence of movements
- Aphasia – difficulty with language or speech
- Poor organizational and planning skills
- Repetitive or persistent behavior, rules, or a set way of thinking
- Difficulty in maintaining concentration
- Mood swings
- Decreased motivation to do anything
- Difficulty in problem-solving, poor judgment and reasoning
- Inability to concentrate on a task or pay attention for long
- Inappropriate social behavior
- Lack of impulse control and inhibition
- Dramatic personality changes and irritability
What Can Damage The Prefrontal Cortex?
Many things can cause damage to the frontal lobes and the prefrontal cortex, some are severe, and others are less problematic, namely –
- A head injury caused by a fall, motor vehicle accident, or a sport-related injury.
- An infection that passes the blood-brain barrier affects the prefrontal cortex.
- A stroke
- Multiple Sclerosis
- A brain tumor
- Huntington’s disease
- Parkinsons’s disease
- Alzheimer’s disease
What Treatments Are Available For Prefrontal Cortex Damage?
Depending on the type of injury and how much damage has been done to the prefrontal cortex, a team of specialists will determine the best possible program. These treatments may include the following –
- Physiotherapy – This is physical therapy performed by a qualified physiotherapist to help the patient regain mobility, physical strength, flexibility, and gross motor functions.
- Cognitive therapy – Performed by a qualified cognitive therapist or neuroscience therapist to help the patient work on life skills such as memory, planning, judgment, empathy, and fear response.
- Speech therapy – A qualified speech therapist performs to help the patient regain language and speech functions. This will improve communication skills. For more severe injuries, there are speech assistant devices available.
- Occupational therapy – Performed by a qualified occupational therapist to help the patient regain control over daily task performance. This includes getting dressed, bathing, eating, grooming, and other fine motor functions.
- Psychology – Seeing a psychologist can help patients deal with their new reality more productively. They can help rebuild relationships, coping mechanisms, and responses.
- Vocational counseling – Very closely combined with occupational therapy, vocational counseling helps re-integrate patients into the workplace with an ergonomic approach.
- Surgery – Removing tumors can assist in the recovery of a patient, and after some surgeries, a full rehabilitation program will be recommended.
Neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, may cause permanent damage to the frontal lobe and prefrontal cortex, needing medication and physical therapy combined.
Clinical Observations Regarding The Prefrontal Cortex
The following observations are made regarding the prefrontal cortex in clinical psychology.
- It has been documented that people diagnosed with mental disorders, sociopaths, psychopaths, people with suicide tendencies, career criminals, drug abusers, inmates, and people poisoned by lead show a reduced volume of the frontal lobes. There is also reduced connectivity between the frontal lobes and the rest of the brain.
- A mature or well-developed prefrontal cortex is directly related to enhanced empathy, feelings of remorse, and guilt.
- In sentient beings, the size of the prefrontal cortex and the number of connections can be attributed to self-awareness or sentience. Humans have the largest prefrontal cortex per volume than any other mammal or animal.
- Exercise that requires crossing the midline, such as aerobics, pilates, or dancing, causes the right and left sides of the prefrontal cortex to become more interconnected and mature.
- Some forms of meditation, such as Transcendental Meditation, have shown that it can cause the two brain hemispheres to start reconnecting and communicating. Over 600 cited medical papers show the effectiveness of this technique, and it is widely and successfully used in schools and with military veterans with severe PTSD.
- Certain drugs are known to cause a sensation of having undergone a chemical lobotomy; among them, the drug Lithium is known to mimic that feeling.
As you get older and start to reminisce about things, places, people, and events from your youth, your brain relies on the strong connections between the prefrontal cortex and the rest of the brain.
This section of the brain is an important part of the sentience and existence we as humans enjoy. It will not be impossible to live or function without a prefrontal cortex, but it will significantly alter the quality of life.