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The term prefrontal cortex, or PFC, can be used to refer generally to the part of the
frontal lobe that is anterior to, or in front of, the motor cortex.
Neuroscientists generally further divide the PFC into subregions, and while there is no
clear consensus on what those subregions should be, some common demarcations include the dorsolateral,
dorsomedial, ventrolateral, ventromedial, and orbitofrontal regions.
The PFC makes up a substantial proportion of the entire brain, and thus is not surprisingly
involved in a long list of functions.
But it is most commonly associated with executive functions.
There isn’t a precise definition for the term executive functions, but it generally
refers to processes that focus on controlling short-sighted behavior to be able to act with
a goal in mind.
This may include things like self-control, planning, decision-making, and problem-solving.
Because these are complex cognitive functions, it is unlikely any one brain region is solely
responsible for them, and more likely they depend on distributed networks of brain regions.
Nevertheless, the PFC seems to play a critically important role in executive functions---a
hypothesis supported by neuroimaging research and cases where the PFC was damaged and executive
functions impaired.
Although each of the subregions of the PFC is typically associated with slightly different
aspects of cognition, we are not yet at the point where we can confidently assign specific
roles to PFC subregions.Most evidence suggests that the executive functions of the PFC are
accomplished due to the interaction of these subregions and their communication with other
areas outside the PFC.
One general model of PFC function is that it receives sensory information about the
external world, uses that information to plan responses, and then communicates with other
areas of the brain to enact a response, which might involve anything ranging from movement
to simply a redirection of attention.