Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Penn and German researchers help identify neural basis of multitasking


What makes someone better at switching between different tasks? Looking for the mechanisms behind cognitive flexibility, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Germany's Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim and Charité University Medicine Berlin have used brain scans to shed new light on this question.

By studying networks of activity in the brain's frontal cortex, a region associated with control over thoughts and actions, the researchers have shown that the degree to which these networks reconfigure themselves while switching from task to task predicts people's cognitive flexibility.

These plots show connection strength between nodes in the brain during the control task (top) and the memory task (bottom). Brain regions are arrayed on both the X and Y axes; the strength of their connection is indicated by the color of the coordinate where they meet.

Credit: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Experiment participants who performed best while alternating between a memory test and a control test showed the most rearrangement of connections within their frontal cortices as well as the most new connections with other areas of their brains.

A more fundamental understanding of how the brain manages multitasking could lead to better interventions for medical conditions associated with reduced executive function, such as autism, schizophrenia or dementia.

Danielle Bassett, the Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in Penn's School of Engineering and Applied Science, is senior author on the study. Manheim's Urs Braun and Axel Schäfer were the lead authors. The research also featured work from Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg and Heike Tost of Mannheim, Henrik Walter of Charité, and others.

It was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Rather than looking at the role a single region in the brain plays, Bassett and colleagues study the interconnections between the regions as indicated by synchronized activity. Using fMRI, they can measure which parts of the brain are "talking" to one another as study participants perform various tasks. Mapping the way this activity network reconfigures itself provides a more holistic view of how the brain operates.

"We try to understand how dynamic flexibility of brain networks can predict cognitive flexibility, or the ability to switch from task to task," Bassett said. "Rather than being driven by the activity of single brain areas, we believe executive function is a network-level process."

A previous study that Bassett led showed that people who could more quickly "disconnect" their frontal cortices did better on a task that involved pressing keys that corresponded to color-coded notes on a screen. The high level decision-making associated with the frontal cortex's cognitive control wasn't as critical to playing the short sequences of notes, so those who still engaged this part of the brain were essentially overthinking a simple problem.

In the new experiment, lead by Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg of Mannheim, 344 participants alternated between a working memory task designed to engage the frontal cortex and a control task. The easy task involved pressing the corresponding button as a sequence of numbers appeared on a screen one by one. The hard task also involved a sequence of numbers on a screen, but participants had to press the button that corresponded to the number that appeared two places back in the series each time they saw a new one.

Urs Braun and Axel Schäfer, the lead authors on the paper, collaborated with Bassett, who has developed novel tools from network science to distill evolving brain connections. They used these tools to map how participants' brain activities rearranged during each block of the working memory task, each block of the control task and blocks in between where participants switched gears.

"The nodes in the network that are most involved in reconfigurations are cognitive control areas in the frontal cortex," Bassett said. "More flexibility within the frontal cortex meant more accuracy on the memory task, and more consistent connectivity between the frontal cortex and other regions was even more predictive."

While the predictive strength of this reconfiguration suggests that it is only one of several processes involved in successful task switching, it plays a core role.

"It doesn't account for a huge amount variance," Bassett said, "but it suggests that this kind of reconfiguration is a fundamental aspect of cognitive flexibility."


Other researchers who contributed to the study include Susanne Erk, Nina Romanczuk-Seiferth and Andreas Heinz of Berlin, and Leila Haddad, Janina I. Schweiger and Oliver Grimm of Mannheim.

The research was supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; Alfred P. Sloan Foundation; Army Research Laboratory through contract W911NF-10-2-0022; Institute for Translational Medicine and Therapeutics at Penn; National Institute of Mental Health through award 2-R01-DC-009209-11; National Science Foundation through awards BCS-1441502 and BCS-1430087; German Federal Ministry of Education and Research through grants 01GS08144, 01GS08147 and 01GS08148; Innovative Medicines Initiative Joint Undertaking though grant agreement 115008; and German Federal Ministry of Education and Research through BMBF 01GQ1102.

Media Contact

Evan Lerner


Evan Lerner | EurekAlert!

More articles from Social Sciences:

nachricht New population data provide insight on aging, migration
31.08.2016 | International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)

nachricht PRB projects world population rising 33 percent by 2050 to nearly 10 billion
25.08.2016 | Population Reference Bureau

All articles from Social Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Novel light sources made of 2D materials

Physicists from the University of Würzburg have designed a light source that emits photon pairs. Two-photon sources are particularly well suited for tap-proof data encryption. The experiment's key ingredients: a semiconductor crystal and some sticky tape.

So-called monolayers are at the heart of the research activities. These "super materials" (as the prestigious science magazine "Nature" puts it) have been...

Im Focus: Etching Microstructures with Lasers

Ultrafast lasers have introduced new possibilities in engraving ultrafine structures, and scientists are now also investigating how to use them to etch microstructures into thin glass. There are possible applications in analytics (lab on a chip) and especially in electronics and the consumer sector, where great interest has been shown.

This new method was born of a surprising phenomenon: irradiating glass in a particular way with an ultrafast laser has the effect of making the glass up to a...

Im Focus: Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves

Terahertz excitation of selected crystal vibrations leads to an effective magnetic field that drives coherent spin motion

Controlling functional properties by light is one of the grand goals in modern condensed matter physics and materials science. A new study now demonstrates how...

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

Activation of 2 genes linked to development of atherosclerosis

28.10.2016 | Life Sciences

How plants conquer the world

28.10.2016 | Life Sciences

Novel light sources made of 2D materials

28.10.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

More VideoLinks >>>