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Organization of Frontal Lobe Networks and Function

July 9–14, 2023

Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies, Frankfurt am Main, Germany

Marie Banich, Suzanne Haber, and Trevor W. Robbins, Chairs

Program Advisory Committee

Amy Arnsten, Marie Banich, Mark D’Esposito, Suzanne Haber, Julia Lupp, John O’Doherty, Trevor W. Robbins

Goals of the Forum

To examine the circuitry, neuronal mechanisms, and computations by which different PFC regions and associated networks mediate key component mental operations (e.g., limbic-affective, cognitive, social, and motoric) that enable higher-level thought and behavior in health and neuropsychiatric disorders.


The frontal lobes, which are most expanded in humans as compared to other species, play a critical role in higher-order thinking and the control of goal-oriented behavior, yet there is no consensus on how its neuroanatomical and functional organization enables such capabilities. Although scientists investigate the frontal lobe functions using diverse approaches, their focus is typically on one frontal area or network (i.e., the executive control network connections of the dorsolateral PFC). What is missing is an understanding of how, where, and when networks interact. The capabilities of the frontal cortex require an organization that must be able to integrate across multiple brain systems, utilizing information from each of these in a measured flexible manner, depending on task demands. A major issue is whether there is a central executive controlling region of the PFC or whether this control emerges from the interplay between autonomous processing modules in its specific anatomical subregions (or Brodmann areas).

Research on the frontal lobes is an active area of research across various fields, yet it is somewhat “siloed,” and no major meeting has been held on the topic for a decade. This Forum will promote extensive discussion and collaboration across fields, as researchers collectively explore how frontal cortical networks interact and work together to develop appropriate control over actions and thoughts.

Group 1: Evolutionary perspectives: Homologies and analogies

  • What are the major regions and circuits observed across species within PFC?
  • What are the structural and functional homologies of the PFC across species?
  • How did the PFC evolve and how has this evolution led to produce higher-order cognition, including social and moral reasoning elements in humans?
  • What are the mechanisms by which these major circuits exert control? By patterns of anatomical connectivity, neural synchronization and oscillations, chemical neuromodulation, excitatory/ inhibitory balance, plasticity and long-term potentiation, or other mechanisms specific to the prefrontal cortex?
  • How can the functions of micro-circuit approaches defined by optogenetics and multiple unit electrophysiology be linked to macro-circuits as revealed by human imaging modalities?

Group 2: Functional fractionation and integration: Physiology, networks, and behaviors

  • To what degree is the PFC composed of discrete functional regions, and if so to what degree do they overlap?
  • How can interactions between PFC regions best be understood (e.g., are there specific hubs that coordinate PFC function)?
  • Is the organization of these functional regions hierarchical or can it be conceptualized in some other organizational mode?
  • To what degree do subcircuits within the PFC converge map onto non-frontal regions?
  • How are PFC circuits modified by genetic expression and environmental input?

Group 3: Integrative psychological, computational, and mechanistic approaches to frontal lobe function

  • To what extent is there unitary versus diversity of fronto-executive functions?
  • Are concepts of cognitive or executive control outmoded? Should there be a new taxonomy?
  • How can computational approaches enhance our understanding of the concept of cognitive control or executive function?
  • How can such computational approaches be linked to PFC function?
  • How best can information about PFC anatomy, function, connectivity, and computational modeling of behavior be combined to produce new insights into how the PFC enables higher-level cognition?

Group 4: How can understanding of the PFC be translated to the bedside and society at large?

  • How can an understanding of the functional anatomy of the prefrontal cortex inform our understanding of psychiatric and neurological disorders, including co-morbidities?
  • How can animal models involving PFC function be enhanced to address salient clinical issues?
  • What are the surgical, pharmaceutical, or cognitive-behavioral interventions that can produce improvements in cognitive control and executive function?
  • What are the mechanisms by which such interventions likely act?
  • What general principles can we learn about the functions of the PFC that have broader societal implications (e.g., philosophy of volition, contributions to AI and educational practice)?