In sum, the anterior cingulate cortex appears to play an important role in autonomic, affective, and cognitive behavior. The precise nature of its role is still uncertain and a number of questions remain unanswered. For example, is the anterior cingulate cortex organized by function or by domain? In other words, do different regions of the anterior cingulate cortex function according to different rules or mechanisms, or is there a common underlying function that applies to all domains of behavior including the domains of sensation (e.g., pain), affect, and cognition? The anterior cingulate cortex appears both anatomically and functionally well-situated to integrate information across these domains. Paus and others have demonstrated somatotopic organization of the cingulate cortex and suggest that this region modulates and funnels cognitive and motor commands to the motor system. One could interpret this view as the cingulate having a specific function that only differs across regions in terms of the type of information guiding the action. Although Paus' work was specific to motor and cognitive commands, it may be plausible to modify this theory to accommodate the domain of emotion and emotionally guided actions (e.g., to avoid or approach an aversive or appetitive stimulus). A potential caveat in this line of thinking is the inverse relation frequently observed between the affective and cognitive portions of the anterior cingulate gyrus in imaging studies.

Clearly, the anterior cingulate cortex plays an important role in attention and behavioral regulation, and Posner and colleagues have been at the forefront of such speculations. However, the question remains in the cognitive literature as to whether the anterior cingulate's primary function is one of executive control, whereby the cingulate functions as a controller to resolve conflict, or one of detection, whereby the anterior cingulate monitors for errors or conflict. A number of groups have begun to dissociate these functions in adult and developmental neuroimaging studies that attribute conflict detection to the anterior cingulate cortex and conflict resolution to other regions like the prefrontal cortex. Either way, the structure is critical for guiding complex cognitive actions. Its specific role in behavior will be further specified with the refinement of biologically plausible computational models that will help constrain interpretations of the electrophysiological and imaging data. Recently, Matthew Botvinick of the University of Pittsburgh has developed such a model, which seems to clarify the role of the anterior cingulate cortex in cognitive conflict and dissociates conflict from cognitive control. How well this model of anterior cingulate function will hold up within the domains of sensation and affect remains unanswered. However, it is the case that paradigms of affective processing often require the subject to induce an affective state or think of emotional information that is contrary to or in conflict with the subject's current affective state. Moreover, affective paradigms have conflicting responses built in as with the emotional Stroop task, which requires the subject to name the color of the emotionally salient word "Murder" when reading the word is the more compelling response. Likewise, in the case of pain research, one can imagine the inherent response conflict associated with the competing representations to avoid vs tolerate a painful stimulus. Each of these examples provides a plausible role of the anterior cingulate in monitoring unresolved conflict across the domains of emotion and pain. Clearly, exciting work and theory development on anterior cingulate function will continue with the advancements of noninvasive neuroimaging and genetic methodologies in combination with computational and animal models.

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Suggested Reading

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Bush, G., Luu, P., and Posner, M. I. (2000). Cognitive and emotional influences in anterior cingulate cortex. Trends Cogn. Sci. 4, 215-222.

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