Distributed Representations of Rule Identity and Rule Order in Human Frontal Cortex and Striatum
Carlo Reverberi, Kai Gorgen, and John-Dylan Haynes
J. Neurosci. 2012;32 17420-17430
Humans are able to flexibly devise and implement rules to reach their desired goals. For simple situations, we can use single rules, such as “if traffic light is green then cross the street.” In most cases, however, more complex rule sets are required, involving the integration of multiple layers of control. Although it has been shown that prefrontal cortex is important for rule representation, it has remained unclear how the brain encodes more complex rule sets. Here, we investigate how the brain represents the order in which different parts of a rule set are evaluated. Participants had to follow compound rule sets that involved the concurrent application of two single rules in a specific order, where one of the rules always had to be evaluated first. The rules and their assigned order were independently manipulated. By applying multivariate decoding to fMRI data, we found that the identity of the current rule was encoded in a frontostriatal network involving right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, right superior frontal gyrus, and dorsal striatum. In contrast, rule order could be decoded in the dorsal striatum and in the right premotor cortex. The nonhomogeneous distribution of information across brain areas was confirmed by follow-up analyses focused on relevant regions of interest. We argue that the brain encodes complex rule sets by “decomposing” them in their constituent features, which are represented in different brain areas, according to the aspect of information to be maintained.