Lei Qiao, Lijie Zhang, Antao Chen and Tobias Egner
Journal of Neuroscience 8 November 2017, 37 (45) 11037-11050
Cognitive flexibility forms the core of the extraordinary ability of humans to adapt, but the precise neural mechanisms underlying our ability to nimbly shift between task sets remain poorly understood. Recent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies employing multivoxel pattern analysis (MVPA) have shown that a currently relevant task set can be decoded from activity patterns in the frontoparietal cortex, but whether these regions support the dynamic transformation of task sets from trial to trial is not clear. Here, we combined a cued task-switching protocol with human (both sexes) fMRI, and harnessed representational similarity analysis (RSA) to facilitate a novel assessment of trial-by-trial changes in neural task-set representations. We first used MVPA to define task-sensitive frontoparietal and visual regions and found that neural task-set representations on switch trials are less stably encoded than on repeat trials. We then exploited RSA to show that the neural representational pattern dissimilarity across consecutive trials is greater for switch trials than for repeat trials, and that the degree of this pattern dissimilarity predicts behavior. Moreover, the overall neural pattern of representational dissimilarities followed from the assumption that repeating sets, compared with switching sets, results in stronger neural task representations. Finally, when moving from cue to target phase within a trial, pattern dissimilarities tracked the transformation from previous-trial task representations to the currently relevant set. These results provide neural evidence for the longstanding assumptions of an effortful task-set reconfiguration process hampered by task-set inertia, and they demonstrate that frontoparietal and stimulus processing regions support “dynamic adaptive coding,” flexibly representing changing task sets in a trial-by-trial fashion.