Dissociating the roles of the rostral anterior cingulate and the lateral prefrontal cortices in performing two tasks simultaneously or successively.
A fundamental question about the nature of cognitive control is whether performing two tasks successively or simultaneously activates distinct brain regions. To investigate this question, we designed a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study that compared task-switching and dual-task performance. The results showed that performing two tasks successively or simultaneously activated a common prefronto-parietal neural network relative to performing each task separately. More importantly, we found that the anterior cingulate and the lateral prefrontal cortices were differently activated in dual-task and task-switching situations. When performing two tasks simultaneously, as compared to performing them in succession, activation was found in the rostral anterior cingulate cortex. In contrast, switching between two tasks, relative to performing them simultaneously, activated the left lateral prefrontal cortex and the bilateral intra-parietal sulcus region. We interpret these results as indicating that the rostral anterior cingulate cortex serves to resolve conflicts between stimulus-response associations when performing two tasks simultaneously, while the lateral prefrontal cortex dynamically selects the neural pathways needed to perform a given task during task switching.