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New Agendas for New Goals of the Prefrontal Cortex

By: , Posted on: August 24, 2015

New Agendas animated

The overarching, most general function of the prefrontal cortex is the temporal organization of actions in pursuit of new goals.  It is a highly complex function that requires the access of the prefrontal cortex to a vast fund of knowledge and memory. In addition it requires the timely cooperation of the prefrontal cortex with other brain structures, notably other cortical regions.

To perform that time-organizing function, the prefrontal cortex makes use of five “executive” cognitive functions, all five with a future perspective: planning, attentional set, working memory, decision-making, and inhibitory control.  The first four make use of the cortex of the external or lateral convexity of the frontal lobes, the fifth of the inferior—orbital–prefrontal cortex.  All five operate within the perception-action (PA) cycle, which is the biological cybernetic cycle that adapts the organism to its environment.

The PA cycle constitutes the highest (cortical) level of a hierarchy of biological mechanisms of environmental adaptation that operates at all levels of the central nervous system.  At its lowest level, in the brain stem, the cycle operates reflexively: a stimulus leads to a reaction, which generates environmental change, which generates further stimuli, which feed back into the brain to guide further action.  At the cortical level, the stimuli evoke percepts in posterior cortex, which are analyzed by its memory networks (cognits), which in frontal cortex inform executive action, which generates feedback for new or corrective action.  By use of its five prospective cognitive functions, the prefrontal cortex, at the top of the PA cycle, ensures temporal order in percepts and actions until the goal is reached.  All that takes place by a series of successive cycles that make the prefrontal cortex not only adaptive but also critically pre-adaptive; it predicts changes and adapts the organism to them before they occur.

In addition to that cognitive PA cycle, and parallel to it, there is an emotional PA cycle, which runs through limbic structures and serves the emotional adaptation of the individual.  The two cycles intersect in the orbital prefrontal cortex, where the motivational and rewarding connotations of expected goals guide and potentiate the pursuit of those goals.   Each new goal is thus reached by the two cycles working in tandem under prefrontal control.


Normally the prefrontal cortex does not engage in the pursuit of old goals by habit or routine.  These are relegated to hierarchically lower brain structures.  The prefrontal cortex does engage when the goals are novel, requiring new plans and the mediation of new contingencies across time.  In other words, the prefrontal cortex intervenes proactively when the PA cycle is geared in the pursuit of new goals.  For this reason it has been called the organ of creativity.

Nowhere is the prefrontal cortex involved so much in the creative PA cycle as in language.  Especially creative, and therefore in prefrontal purview, is the language that proposes new and elaborate plans to attain new and exciting goals.  In the 19th century, Jackson, the famous English neurologist, remarked that one of the most consistent results of frontal damage (left hemisphere) is the failure to propositionise.  In any case, the linguistic PA cycle is very much used in ordinary life; the dialog between two persons engages their respective PA cycles and prefrontal cortices dynamically interlocked with each other, where each person is the “environment” of the other, and their goal persuasion, dissuasion or agreement.

About the Author:

Joaquin FusterDr. Joaquin M. Fuster was born in Barcelona, Spain, in 1930. Studied medicine at the University of Barcelona. In Barcelona and Innsbruck (Austria), he specialized in psychiatry. In 1957 Fuster emigrated to the United States for a career in neuroscience at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). In 1962-64, he worked as a visiting scientist at the Max-Planck Institute for Psychiatry in Munich. He received his PhD. in neuroscience at the University of Granada, Spain. Dr. Fuster is Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and a member of the Brain Research Institute and the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at the UCLA’s School of Medicine.

Dr. Fuster’s major honors and awards include: the title of Member of Honor of the Spanish Royal Academy of Medicine (1997); Signoret Prize (Université de La Sorbonne, Paris) (2000); Fyssen International Science Prize (2000); Doctor Honoris Causa, Universidad Miguel Hernández, Alicante, Spain (2003); Goldman-Rakic Prize for Cognitive Neuroscience (NARSAD) (2006); George Miller Prize of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society (2006); Doctor Honoris Causa, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (2008); Geschwind Lecturer, Harvard University (2009); Woolsey Lecturer, University of Wisconsin (2010); Elected Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2010); Segerfalk Lecturer, University of Lund, Sweden (2010); Doctor Honoris Causa, Universidad Francisco Marroquín, Guatemala (2014). Dr. Fuster is the author of more than 200 articles and 8 books.

For more information, the recently revised edition of Dr. Fuster’s book, The Prefrontal Cortex, Fifth Edition, provides a thoroughly updated version of this comprehensive work that has historically served as the classic reference on this part of the brain. The book offers a unifying, interdisciplinary perspective that is lacking in other volumes written about the frontal lobes, and is, once again, written by the award-winning author who discovered “memory cells,” the physiological substrate of working memory.

prefrontal cortex

The fifth edition constitutes a comprehensive update, including all the major advances made on the physiology and cognitive neuroscience of the region since publication in 2008.

All chapters have been fully revised, and the overview of prefrontal functions now interprets experimental data within the theoretical framework of the new paradigm of cortical structure and dynamics (the Cognit Paradigm), addressing the accompanying social, economic, and cultural implications.

To order your print copy, visit the Elsevier Store. Apply discount code STC315 to receive up to 30% off the list price and free global shipping. If you prefer an e-copy, you can access it on ScienceDirect.

Book reviews:

“Once again, Dr. Fuster, the world’s pre-eminent expert on the frontal lobes, has delivered an instant classic that should be read by everyone interested in understanding the link between brain and behavior.” – Mark D’Esposito, Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology, Director, Henry H. Wheeler Jr. Brain Imaging Center, University of California, Berkeley, USA

“A classic that has graced the library of many of us since its first edition appeared 28 years ago now returns, splendidly updated. As a result this book will continue to be the go-to reference on the prefrontal cortex as we strive to understand more fully its critical role in brain function.” – Marcus E. Raichle, Professor of Radiology and Neurology, Washington University School of Medicine, St Louis, USA

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