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Multitasking Behaviors Mapped To The Prefrontal Cortex

Investigators have mapped a region of the brain responsible for a certain kind of multitasking behavior, the uniquely human ability to perform several separate tasks consecutively while keeping the goals of each task in mind. Using imaging technology, scientists from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) found that a specific type of multitasking behavior, called branching, can be mapped to a certain region of the brain that is especially well developed in humans compared to other primates. The study will appear in the May 13, 1999, issue of the journal Nature(1).

"The results of this study suggest that the anterior prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that is most developed in humans, mediates the ability to depart temporarily from a main task in order to explore alternative tasks before returning to the main task at the departed point," says Jordan Grafman, Ph.D., Chief of the Cognitive Neuroscience Section at the NINDS and a co-author of the study.

"We believe that this finding is important because branching processes appear to play a key role in human cognition," says Etienne Koechlin, Ph.D., also of the NINDS Cognitive Neuroscience Section and a co-author of the study. "In everyday life, we often need to interrupt an ongoing task to respond to external events and we all experience how demanding it is to react to these events while keeping our minds on the original task."

According to previous studies, humans may be the only species capable of performing branching, which involves keeping a goal in mind over time (working memory) while at the same time being able to change focus among tasks (attentional resource allocation). For example, people who are interrupted by a phone call while reading must be able to keep in mind the memory of what they were reading just before talking on the phone. Once the phone call is over, they should be able to return to the last sentence read and continue reading.

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Contact: Marcia Vital or Paul Girolami
301-496-5751
NIH/National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
12-May-1999


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