Indexed on: 12 Jul '13Published on: 12 Jul '13Published in: The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience
Information enters the cortex via modality-specific sensory regions, whereas actions are produced by modality-specific motor regions. Intervening central stages of information processing map sensation to behavior. Humans perform this central processing in a flexible, abstract manner such that sensory information in any modality can lead to response via any motor system. Cognitive theories account for such flexible behavior by positing amodal central information processing (e.g., "central executive," Baddeley and Hitch, 1974; "supervisory attentional system," Norman and Shallice, 1986; "response selection bottleneck," Pashler, 1994). However, the extent to which brain regions embodying central mechanisms of information processing are amodal remains unclear. Here we apply multivariate pattern analysis to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data to compare response selection, a cognitive process widely believed to recruit an amodal central resource across sensory and motor modalities. We show that most frontal and parietal cortical areas known to activate across a wide variety of tasks code modality, casting doubt on the notion that these regions embody a central processor devoid of modality representation. Importantly, regions of anterior insula and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex consistently failed to code modality across four experiments. However, these areas code at least one other task dimension, process (instantiated as response selection vs response execution), ensuring that failure to find coding of modality is not driven by insensitivity of multivariate pattern analysis in these regions. We conclude that abstract encoding of information modality is primarily a property of subregions of the prefrontal cortex.