Expert cognitive control and individual differences associated with frontal and parietal white matter microstructure.
Roberts RE., Anderson EJ., Husain M.
Although many functional imaging studies have reported frontal activity associated with "cognitive control" tasks, little is understood about factors underlying individual differences in performance. Here we compared the behavior and brain structure of healthy controls with fighter pilots, an expert group trained to make precision choices at speed in the presence of conflicting cues. Two different behavioral paradigms--Eriksen Flanker and change of plan tasks--were used to assess the influence of distractors and the ability to update ongoing action plans. Fighter pilots demonstrated superior cognitive control as indexed by accuracy and postconflict adaptation on the Flanker task, but also showed increased sensitivity to irrelevant, distracting choices. By contrast, when pilots were examined on their ability to inhibit a current action plan in favor of an alternative response, their performance was no better than the control group. Diffusion weighted imaging revealed differences in white matter radial diffusivity between pilots and controls not only in the right dorsomedial frontal region but also in the right parietal lobe. Moreover, analysis of individual differences in reaction time costs for conflict trials on the Flanker task demonstrated significant correlations with radial diffusivity at these locations, but in different directions. Postconflict adaptation effects, however, were confined to the dorsomedial frontal locus. The findings demonstrate that in humans expert cognitive control may surprisingly be mediated by enhanced response gain to both relevant and irrelevant stimuli, and is accompanied by structural alterations in the white matter of the frontal and parietal lobe.