Dissociating response conflict and error likelihood in anterior cingulate cortex.
Yeung N., Nieuwenhuis S.
Neuroimaging studies consistently report activity in anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) in conditions of high cognitive demand, leading to the view that ACC plays a crucial role in the control of cognitive processes. According to one prominent theory, the sensitivity of ACC to task difficulty reflects its role in monitoring for the occurrence of competition, or "conflict," between responses to signal the need for increased cognitive control. However, a contrasting theory proposes that ACC is the recipient rather than source of monitoring signals, and that ACC activity observed in relation to task demand reflects the role of this region in learning about the likelihood of errors. Response conflict and error likelihood are typically confounded, making the theories difficult to distinguish empirically. The present research therefore used detailed computational simulations to derive contrasting predictions regarding ACC activity and error rate as a function of response speed. The simulations demonstrated a clear dissociation between conflict and error likelihood: fast response trials are associated with low conflict but high error likelihood, whereas slow response trials show the opposite pattern. Using the N2 component as an index of ACC activity, an EEG study demonstrated that when conflict and error likelihood are dissociated in this way, ACC activity tracks conflict and is negatively correlated with error likelihood. These findings support the conflict-monitoring theory and suggest that, in speeded decision tasks, ACC activity reflects current task demands rather than the retrospective coding of past performance.