Posterior parietal cortex

What underlies differences in fluid intelligence? How are smart brains different from those that are merely ‘average’?

Brain imaging studies have pointed to several aspects. One is brain size. Although the history of simplistic comparisons of brain size has been turbulent (you cannot, for example, directly compare brain size without taking into account the size of the body it’s part of), nevertheless, overall brain size does count for something — 6.7% of individual variation in intelligence, it’s estimated. So, something, but not a huge amount.

Activity levels in the prefrontal cortex, research also suggests, account for another 5% of variation in individual intelligence. (Do keep in mind that these figures are not saying that, for example, prefrontal activity explains 5% of intelligence. We are talking about differences between individuals.)

A new study points to a third important factor — one that, indeed, accounts for more than either of these other factors. The strength of the connections from the left prefrontal cortex to other areas is estimated to account for 10% of individual differences in intelligence.

These findings suggest a new perspective on what intelligence is. They suggest that part of intelligence rests on the functioning of the prefrontal cortex and its ability to communicate with the rest of the brain — what researchers are calling ‘global connectivity’. This may reflect cognitive control and, in particular, goal maintenance. The left prefrontal cortex is thought to be involved in (among other things) remembering your goals and any instructions you need for accomplishing those goals.

The study involved 93 adults (average age 23; range 18-40), whose brains were monitored while they were doing nothing and when they were engaged in the cognitively challenging N-back working memory task.

Brain activity patterns revealed three regions within the frontoparietal network that were significantly involved in this task: the left lateral prefrontal cortex, right premotor cortex, and right medial posterior parietal cortex. All three of these regions also showed signs of being global hubs — that is, they were highly connected to other regions across the brain.

Of these, however, only the left lateral prefrontal cortex showed a significant association between its connectivity and individual’s fluid intelligence. This was confirmed by a second independent measure — working memory capacity — which was also correlated with this region’s connectivity, and only this region.

In other words, those with greater connectivity in the left LPFC had greater cognitive control, which is reflected in higher working memory capacity and higher fluid intelligence. There was no correlation between connectivity and crystallized intelligence.

Interestingly, although other global hubs (such as the anterior prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex) also have strong relationships with intelligence and high levels of global connectivity, they did not show correlations between their levels of connectivity and fluid intelligence. That is, although the activity within these regions may be important for intelligence, their connections to other brain regions are not.

So what’s so important about the connections the LPFC has with the rest of the brain? It appears that, although it connects widely to sensory and motor areas, it is primarily the connections within the frontoparietal control network that are most important — as well as the deactivation of connections with the default network (the network active during rest).

This is not to say that the LPFC is the ‘seat of intelligence’! Research has made it clear that a number of brain regions support intelligence, as do other areas of connectivity. The finding is important because it shows that the left LPFC supports cognitive control and intelligence through a mechanism involving global connectivity and some other as-yet-unknown property. One possibility is that this region is a ‘flexible’ hub — able to shift its connectivity with a number of different brain regions as the task demands.

In other words, what may count is how many different connectivity patterns the left LPFC has in its repertoire, and how good it is at switching to them.

An association between negative connections with the default network and fluid intelligence also adds to evidence for the importance of inhibiting task-irrelevant processing.

All this emphasizes the role of cognitive control in intelligence, and perhaps goes some way to explaining why self-regulation in children is so predictive of later success, apart from the obvious.

We know that emotion affects memory. We know that attention affects perception (see, e.g., Visual perception heightened by meditation training; How mindset can improve vision). Now a new study ties it all together. The study shows that emotionally arousing experiences affect how well we see them, and this in turn affects how vividly we later recall them.

The study used images of positively and negatively arousing scenes and neutral scenes, which were overlaid with varying amounts of “visual noise” (like the ‘snow’ we used to see on old televisions). College students were asked to rate the amount of noise on each picture, relative to a specific image they used as a standard. There were 25 pictures in each category, and three levels of noise (less than standard, equal to standard, and more than standard).

Different groups explored different parameters: color; gray-scale; less noise (10%, 15%, 20% as compared to 35%, 45%, 55%); single exposure (each picture was only presented once, at one of the noise levels).

Regardless of the actual amount of noise, emotionally arousing pictures were consistently rated as significantly less noisy than neutral pictures, indicating that people were seeing them more clearly. This was true in all conditions.

Eye-tracking analysis ruled out the idea that people directed their attention differently for emotionally arousing images, but did show that more eye fixations were associated both with less noisy images and emotionally arousing ones. In other words, people were viewing emotionally important images as if they were less noisy.

One group of 22 students were given a 45-minute spatial working memory task after seeing the images, and then asked to write down all the details they could remember about the pictures they remembered seeing. The amount of detail they recalled was taken to be an indirect measure of vividness.

A second group of 27 students were called back after a week for a recognition test. They were shown 36 new images mixed in with the original 75 images, and asked to rate them as new, familiar, or recollected. They were also asked to rate the vividness of their recollection.

Although, overall, emotionally arousing pictures were not more likely to be remembered than neutral pictures, both experiments found that pictures originally seen as more vivid (less noise) were remembered more vividly and in more detail.

Brain scans from 31 students revealed that the amygdala was more active when looking at images rated as vivid, and this in turn increased activity in the visual cortex and in the posterior insula (which integrates sensations from the body). This suggests that the increased perceptual vividness is not simply a visual phenomenon, but part of a wider sensory activation.

There was another neural response to perceptual vividness: activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the posterior parietal cortex was negatively correlated with vividness. This suggests that emotion is not simply increasing our attentional focus, it is instead changing it by reducing effortful attentional and executive processes in favor of more perceptual ones. This, perhaps, gives emotional memories their different ‘flavor’ compared to more neutral memories.

These findings clearly need more exploration before we know exactly what they mean, but the main finding from the study is that the vividness with which we recall some emotional experiences is rooted in the vividness with which we originally perceived it.

The study highlights how emotion can sharpen our attention, building on previous findings that emotional events are more easily detected when visibility is difficult, or attentional demands are high. It is also not inconsistent with a study I reported on last year, which found some information needs no repetition to be remembered because the amygdala decrees it of importance.

I should add, however, that the perceptual effect is not the whole story — the current study found that, although perceptual vividness is part of the reason for memories that are vividly remembered, emotional importance makes its own, independent, contribution. This contribution may occur after the event.

It’s suggested that individual differences in these reactions to emotionally enhanced vividness may underlie an individual’s vulnerability to post-traumatic stress disorder.

A study involving 171 sedentary, overweight 7- to 11-year-old children has found that those who participated in an exercise program improved both executive function and math achievement. The children were randomly selected either to a group that got 20 minutes of aerobic exercise in an after-school program, one that got 40 minutes of exercise in a similar program, or a group that had no exercise program. Those who got the greater amount of exercise improved more. Brain scans also revealed increased activity in the prefrontal cortex and reduced activity in the posterior parietal cortex, for those in the exercise group.

The program lasted around 13 weeks. The researchers are now investigating the effects of continuing the program for a full year. Gender, race, socioeconomic factors or parental education did not change the impact of the exercise program.

The effects are consistent with other studies involving older adults. It should be emphasized that these were sedentary, overweight children. These findings are telling us what the lack of exercise is doing to young minds. I note the report just previous, about counteracting what we have regarded as “normal” brain atrophy in older adults by the simple action of walking for 40 minutes three times a week. Children and older adults might be regarded as our canaries in the coal mine, more vulnerable to many factors that can affect the brain. We should take heed.

Comparison of 17 people with severe obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) with 15 age-matched controls has revealed that those with OSA had reduced gray matter in several brain regions, most particularly in the left parahippocampal gyrus and the left posterior parietal cortex, as well as the entorhinal cortex and the right superior frontal gyrus. These areas were associated with deficits in abstract reasoning and executive function. Deficits in the left posterior parietal cortex were also associated with daytime sleepiness.

Happily, however, three months of treatment with continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), produced a significant increase in gray matter in these regions, which was associated with significant improvement in cognitive function. The researchers suggest that the hippocampus, being especially sensitive to hypoxia and innervation of small vessels, is the region most strongly and quickly affected by hypoxic episodes.

The findings point to the importance of diagnosing and treating OSA.

Older news items (pre-2010) brought over from the old website

June 2009

Study finds autistics better at problem-solving

A study involving 15 autistics and 18 non-autistics, aged 14 to 36 and IQ-matched, has found that while both groups completed patterns in a complex problem-solving test (the widely-used Raven's Standard Progressive Matrices) with equal accuracy, the autistics responded significantly faster, and showed a different pattern of brain activity. Specifically, they showed increased activity in extrastriate areas, and decreased activity in the lateral prefrontal cortex and the medial posterior parietal cortex — suggesting visual processing mechanisms may play a more prominent role in reasoning in autistics. The differences between groups did not appear when participants performed a simpler pattern-matching task.

Soulières, I. et al. 2009. Enhanced visual processing contributes to matrix reasoning in autism. Human Brain Mapping, Published Online June 15.

April 2009

Individual differences in working memory capacity depend on two factors

A new computer model adds to our understanding of working memory, by showing that working memory can be increased by the action of the prefrontal cortex in reinforcing activity in the parietal cortex (where the information is temporarily stored). The idea is that the prefrontal cortex sends out a brief stimulus to the parietal cortex that generates a reverberating activation in a small subpopulation of neurons, while inhibitory interactions with neurons further away prevents activation of the entire network. This lateral inhibition is also responsible for limiting the mnemonic capacity of the parietal network (i.e. provides the limit on your working memory capacity). The model has received confirmatory evidence from an imaging study involving 25 volunteers. It was found that individual differences in performance on a short-term visual memory task were correlated with the degree to which the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex was activated and its interconnection with the parietal cortex. In other words, your working memory capacity is determined by both storage capacity (in the posterior parietal cortex) and prefrontal top-down control. The findings may help in the development of ways to improve working memory capacity, particularly when working memory is damaged.

Edin, F. et al. 2009. Mechanism for top-down control of working memory capacity. PNAS, 106 (16), 6802-6807.

August 2007

Gene predicts better outcome as cortex normalizes in teens with ADHD

Recent research found that thickening of brain areas that control attention in the right cortex (right orbitofrontal/inferior prefrontal and posterior parietal cortex ) was associated with better clinical outcomes in ADHD. A new study has found that these brain areas are thinnest in those who carry a particular variant of a gene. The version of the dopamine D4 receptor gene, called the 7-repeat variant, was found in nearly a quarter of youth with ADHD and about one-sixth of the healthy controls. Although this particular gene version increased risk for ADHD, it also made it more likely that the areas would thicken during adolescence, with consequent improvement in behaviour and performance.

Shaw, P. et al. 2007. Polymorphisms of the Dopamine D4 Receptor, Clinical Outcome, and Cortical Structure in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Archives of General Psychiatry, 64, 921-931.

April 2004

Why working memory capacity is so limited

There’s an old parlor game whereby someone brings into a room a tray covered with a number of different small objects, which they show to the people in the room for one minute, before whisking it away again. The participants are then required to write down as many objects as they can remember. For those who perform badly at this type of thing, some consolation from researchers: it’s not (entirely) your fault. We do actually have a very limited storage capacity for visual short-term memory.
Now visual short-term memory is of course vital for a number of functions, and reflecting this, there is an extensive network of brain structures supporting this type of memory. However, a new imaging study suggests that the limited storage capacity is due mainly to just one of these regions: the posterior parietal cortex. An interesting distinction can be made here between registering information and actually “holding it in mind”. Activity in the posterior parietal cortex strongly correlated with the number of objects the subjects were able to remember, but only if the participants were asked to remember. In contrast, regions of the visual cortex in the occipital lobe responded differently to the number of objects even when participants were not asked to remember what they had seen.

[598] Todd JJ, Marois R. Capacity limit of visual short-term memory in human posterior parietal cortex. Nature [Internet]. 2004 ;428(6984):751 - 754. Available from: (Telegraph article)

February 2004

More complex brain may have pre-dated Homo genus

New research supports Raymond Dart’s suggestion (in 1925) that the human brain started evolving its unique characteristics much earlier than has previously been supposed. One of the differences between human and ape brains is the position of the primary visual striate cortex (PVC), an area of the brain devoted exclusively to vision. In the ape brain, this is situated further forward than it is in human brains, making the PVC larger. It has been claimed that the PVC only decreased in size once the brain had grown substantially in size – when big-brained Homo (the hominid group that includes humans) appeared around 2.4 million years ago. However, new examination of an endocast of the brain of an Australopithecus africanus (Australopithecines pre-dated Homo, and their brains were similar in size to those of chimpanzees) has found evidence of a decreased PVC. This suggests an increase in the region lying in front of the PVC - the posterior parietal cerebral cortex, which is associated in humans with a variety of complex behaviors such as the appreciation of objects and their qualities, facial recognition and social communication.

Holloway, R.L., Clarke, R.J. & Tobias, P.V. 2004. Posterior lunate sulcus in Australopithecus africanus: was Dart right? In Press, Corrected Proof, Available online 28 January 2004