News and Commentary Archive

Explore recent scientific discoveries and news as well as CLBB events, commentary, and press.


The speed of technology in neuroscience as it impacts ethical and just decisions in the legal system needs to be understood by lawyers, judges, public policy makers, and the general public. The Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Law, Brain, and Behavior is an academic and professional resource for the education, research, and understanding of neuroscience and the law. Read more

Transcriptional Profiles of Supragranular-Enriched Genes Associate with Corticocortical Network Architecture in the Human Brain

By Fenna M. KrienenB. T. Thomas YeoTian GeRandy L. Buckner, and Chet C. Sherwood | PNAS | December 10, 2015


The human brain is patterned with disproportionately large, distributed cerebral networks that connect multiple association zones in the frontal, temporal, and parietal lobes. The expansion of the cortical surface, along with the emergence of long-range connectivity networks, may be reflected in changes to the underlying molecular architecture. Using the Allen Institute’s human brain transcriptional atlas, we demonstrate that genes particularly enriched in supragranular layers of the human cerebral cortex relative to mouse distinguish major cortical classes. The topography of transcriptional expression reflects large-scale brain network organization consistent with estimates from functional connectivity MRI and anatomical tracing in nonhuman primates. Microarray expression data for genes preferentially expressed in human upper layers (II/III), but enriched only in lower layers (V/VI) of mouse, were cross-correlated to identify molecular profiles across the cerebral cortex of postmortem human brains (n = 6). Unimodal sensory and motor zones have similar molecular profiles, despite being distributed across the cortical mantle. Sensory/motor profiles were anticorrelated with paralimbic and certain distributed association network profiles. Tests of alternative gene sets did not consistently distinguish sensory and motor regions from paralimbic and association regions: (i) genes enriched in supragranular layers in both humans and mice, (ii) genes cortically enriched in humans relative to nonhuman primates, (iii) genes related to connectivity in rodents, (iv) genes associated with human and mouse connectivity, and (v) 1,454 gene sets curated from known gene ontologies. Molecular innovations of upper cortical layers may be an important component in the evolution of long-range corticocortical projections.

Read the full article here.

Habitual Control of Goal Selection in Humans

By Fiery Cushman and Adam Morris | Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences | September 10, 2015


Humans choose actions based on both habit and planning. Habitual control is computationally frugal but adapts slowly to novel circumstances, whereas planning is computationally expensive but can adapt swiftly. Current research emphasizes the competition between habits and plans for behavioral control, yet many complex tasks instead favor their integration. We consider a hierarchical architecture that exploits the computational efficiency of habitual control to select goals while preserving the flexibility of planning to achieve those goals. We formalize this mechanism in a reinforcement learning setting, illustrate its costs and benefits, and experimentally demonstrate its spontaneous application in a sequential decision-making task.

Read the full article here.

An Architecture for Encoding Sentence Meaning in Left Mid-Superior Temporal Cortex

By Steven M. Frankland and Joshua D. Greene | Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences | August 24, 2015


Human brains flexibly combine the meanings of words to compose structured thoughts. For example, by combining the meanings of “bite,” “dog,” and “man,” we can think about a dog biting a man, or a man biting a dog. Here, in two functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) experiments using multivoxel pattern analysis (MVPA), we identify a region of left mid-superior temporal cortex (lmSTC) that flexibly encodes “who did what to whom” in visually presented sentences. We find that lmSTC represents the current values of abstract semantic variables (“Who did it?” and “To whom was it done?”) in distinct subregions. Experiment 1 first identifies a broad region of lmSTC whose activity patterns (i) facilitate decoding of structure-dependent sentence meaning (“Who did what to whom?”) and (ii) predict affect-related amygdala responses that depend on this information (e.g., “the baby kicked the grandfather” vs. “the grandfather kicked the baby”). Experiment 2 then identifies distinct, but neighboring, subregions of lmSTC whose activity patterns carry information about the identity of the current “agent” (“Who did it?”) and the current “patient” (To whom was it done?”). These neighboring subregions lie along the upper bank of the superior temporal sulcus and the lateral bank of the superior temporal gyrus, respectively. At a high level, these regions may function like topographically defined data registers, encoding the fluctuating values of abstract semantic variables. This functional architecture, which in key respects resembles that of a classical computer, may play a critical role in enabling humans to flexibly generate complex thoughts.

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Ventromedial prefrontal cortex supports affective future simulation by integrating distributed knowledge

By Roland Beniot, Karl Szpunar, and Daniel Schacter | PNAS | October 2014

Although the future often seems intangible, we can make it more concrete by imagining prospective events. Here, using functional MRI, we demonstrate a mechanism by which the ventromedial prefrontal cortex supports such episodic simulations, and thereby contributes to affective foresight: This region supports processes that (i) integrate knowledge related to the elements that constitute an episode and (ii) represent the episode’s emergent affective quality. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex achieves such integration via interactions with distributed cortical regions that process the individual elements. Its activation then signals the affective quality of the ensuing episode, which goes beyond the combined affective quality of its constituting elements. The integrative process further augments long-term retention of the episode, making it available at later time points. This mechanism thus renders the future tangible, providing a basis for farsighted behavior.

Read the full paper on PNAS.