Brain & Flexible Cognition
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1. Based on a longstanding collaboration between the University of Oxford and the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, Cambridge.
2. Work recently recognised by award of the 2012 Heineken Prize in Cognitive Science.
3. Primary funding from the MRC and Wellcome Trust.
Prof. John Duncan
Our work addresses brain mechanisms underlying cognition and behaviour, with an emphasis on selective attention and memory. We are especially interested in the attentional, learning and memory functions of the frontal and parietal lobes, which generate dynamic, context-dependent cognition. Our work uses behavioural observation, brain imaging and neurophysiological techniques.
The main aim of our research is to understand the neuronal mechanisms underlying context-dependent cognition and behaviour. For effective, goal-directed cognition, we must control the direction of attention and select appropriate responses based on external (e.g., stimulus) and internal (e.g., memory) conditions. Human brain imaging shows many local regions of the brain involved in specific cognitive activities, such as recognizing a face or understanding language. There is also the complementary discovery of a constant pattern of frontal and parietal lobe activity associated with many different kinds of cognitive demand. This same “multiple-demand (MD)” activity is seen in tasks tapping stimulus discrimination, working memory, episodic memory, response inhibition, language, problem-solving, arithmetic and much more. This suggests that the MD network plays important role in the dynamic control of complex cognition.
To understand underlying neuronal mechanisms, we use sophisticated neurophysiological techniques together with imaging and the analysis of behaviour. We especially focus on mechanisms of attention, memory and learning in the prefrontal and parietal cortices, and the neuronal connections within and between these areas, by simultaneous recording of neuronal activity. Our research details the coding of behaviourally-relevant information in prefrontal cortex, its dependence on cognitive context, and its temporal dynamics as behaviour unfolds.