Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Studies of a range of higher cognitive functions consistently activate a region of anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), typically posterior to the genu and superior to the corpus collosum. In particular, this ACC region appears to be active in task situations where there is a need to override a prepotent response tendency, when responding is underdetermined, and when errors are made. We have hypothesized that the function of this ACC region is to monitor for the presence of “crosstalk” or competition between incompatible responses. In prior work, we provided initial support for this hypothesis, demonstrating ACC activity in the same region both during error trials and during correct trials in task conditions designed to elicit greater response competition. In the present study, we extend our testing of this hypothesis to task situations involving underdetermined responding. Specifically, 14 healthy control subjects performed a verb-generation task during event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), with the on-line acquisition of overt verbal responses. The results demonstrated that the ACC, and only the ACC, was more active in a series of task conditions that elicited competition among alternative responses. These conditions included a greater ACC response to: (1) Nouns categorized as low vs. high constraint (i.e., during a norming study, multiple verbs were produced with equal frequency vs. a single verb that produced much more frequently than any other); (2) the production of verbs that were weak associates, rather than, strong associates of particular nouns; and (3) the production of verbs that were weak associates for nouns categorized as high constraint. We discuss the implication of these results for understanding the role that the ACC plays in human cognition.