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J Neurosci. 2013 Jul 17;33(29):11852-62. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.5193-12.2013.

Choosing the rules: distinct and overlapping frontoparietal representations of task rules for perceptual decisions.

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Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, Medical Research Council, Cambridge CB2 7EF, United Kingdom.


Behavior is governed by rules that associate stimuli with responses and outcomes. Human and monkey studies have shown that rule-specific information is widely represented in the frontoparietal cortex. However, it is not known how establishing a rule under different contexts affects its neural representation. Here, we use event-related functional MRI (fMRI) and multivoxel pattern classification methods to investigate the human brain's mechanisms of establishing and maintaining rules for multiple perceptual decision tasks. Rules were either chosen by participants or specifically instructed to them, and the fMRI activation patterns representing rule-specific information were compared between these contexts. We show that frontoparietal regions differ in the properties of their rule representations during active maintenance before execution. First, rule-specific information maintained in the dorsolateral and medial frontal cortex depends on the context in which it was established (chosen vs specified). Second, rule representations maintained in the ventrolateral frontal and parietal cortex are independent of the context in which they were established. Furthermore, we found that the rule-specific coding maintained in anticipation of stimuli may change with execution of the rule: representations in context-independent regions remain invariant from maintenance to execution stages, whereas rule representations in context-dependent regions do not generalize to execution stage. The identification of distinct frontoparietal systems with context-independent and context-dependent task rule representations, and the distinction between anticipatory and executive rule representations, provide new insights into the functional architecture of goal-directed behavior.

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