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NMSU professor examines activity of brain's 'frontal pole'

You know how in cartoons, when an animated character racks his brain and comes up a genius idea, a bright light bulb pops up above his head? Well, the comical analogy may be closer to reality than you think?thanks to the portion of the brain known as the frontal pole.

According to James Kroger, associate professor of psychology at New Mexico State University, research has indicated that the frontal pole appears most engaged when humans must evaluate complex problems or mete out complicated decisions related to causational future effects. Think of chess players pondering their next move while also anticipating their opponents' response, or a quarterback reading a defense and quickly calling an audible at the line of scrimmage. When the brain is dealing with such issues, the frontal pole, indeed, "lights up."

"The brain's frontal lobes enable higher cognition," explained Kroger. "And it is clear that the frontal pole?the front-most part of the frontal cortex?plays a critical role in performing our more complex cognitive abilities, like reasoning and planning. But it is not clear exactly what this region of the cortex immediately behind our foreheads does, or how it interacts with other parts of the frontal cortex, or the rest of the brain."

Kroger, who has taught at NMSU since 2003, pointed out that researchers have studied the frontal lobe for more than a century; but only in the last decade or so have scientists come to recognize the frontal pole, or "Area 10" on a Brodmann map of the brain, as a special or different part of the frontal lobe?an area that performs differently from the rest of the frontal lobe.

He noted that a half-dozen or so researchers have focused on activity in the frontal pole while test subjects are involved in complicated problem solving, like chess. But while functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) does in fact reveal that Area 10 "lights up" with activity during these situations, what exactly is happening in the brain at this time is still unclear.

Enter Kroger, who first became interested in area 10 while working toward his M.A., and later Ph.D., in cognitive psychology at UCLA in the mid-90s. His research and work continued as a post-doctoral Fellow at Princeton from 1999-2001 and at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor from 2002-2003.

Kroger's research is focused on teasing out the precise contribution that the frontal pole makes during complex thinking. "We give a subject two subtly different complex tasks to perform, and watch for differences in activity in the frontal pole," he explained. "Through a series of these studies, we have determined that the frontal pole is required when a person must create or change mental representations with complex structures of internal relationships, and all of the relationships must stay connected correctly.

"For example, if you have to decide whether to ask someone out on a date Friday or save money to pay your rent, and you also have an important test coming up and need time to study, but the person you want to ask out may soon go out of town for a long time, you are working with a complex set of contingencies to come up with a solution. You can do things like this better than a chimpanzee can, because your frontal pole is well-developed."

Kroger believes that by pinpointing what exactly the frontal pole is doing and why it is doing it during complex problem solving, great strides could be made in assisting those who struggle with logic and complex cause-and-effect scenarios.

"We don't know how to approach complicated human cognition," he said. "But once we can understand the underlying mechanisms it can open up vistas in research. The frontal pole matures very late in human development, usually well into a person's 20s, and this makes sense when you understand how difficult long-term planning is for adolescents. If an adolescent is having difficulties comprehending concepts in his studies, we could potentially develop methods to enhance performance of the frontal pole."

In a similar manner this research may also help adults who have experienced damage to the frontal pole.

While at Princeton, Kroger received a grant from the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression (NARSAD) to study whether decreased activity in the frontal pole could be an early indicator of a patient's proclivity toward developing schizophrenia.

"If we can pinpoint the causes of decreased frontal pole activity, we could potentially develop an early diagnosis for patients at risk of developing schizophrenia," he explained.

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