Skip to Content

Department of Cognitive Science

The brain that adapts itself: flexible processing in an ever-changing world

How do humans - characterized above all animals for the diversity and flexibility of their behaviour - cope so effortlessly in the ever changing world around us? How does the brain achieve such flexible control? What are the neural mechanisms that drive dynamic focus on the most important information?

Image of the several steps involved in multi-voxel pattern analysis

Fig 1 : Analyses examine the information present in fine grained patterns of fMRI activation

Novel methods for neuroimaging analysis enable new insights into how the brain processes information from the world and integrates it with internal representations of task rules and our current cognitive focus. This research uses multi-voxel pattern analysis with fMRI data to examine these processes as participants perform tasks in the scanner.

This research focusses on the contribution of a key network of frontal and parietal “multiple-demand” (MD) brain regions which are important for a wide range of tasks. These regions are thought to behave flexibly: adjusting to process the most important information at each moment; and biasing processing elsewhere in the brain to drive a goal-directed response across the system. Current projects focus on the flexibility of processing in the MD system, the relationship between processing in these regions and more specialised brain regions such as the visual and somatosensory cortices, and what happens when the system fails and we make mistakes.

A figure of the brain's frontoparietal 'multiple-demand' regions

Fig 2 : Frontoparietal 'multiple-demand' (MD) regions


Alexandra Woolgar, Soheil Afshar, Jade Jackson, Sehr Javed, Anina Rich, Mark Williams and John Duncan (MRC-Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, UK)

Recent publications:

  • Woolgar, A., Hampshire, A., Thompson, R. & Duncan, J. (2011). Adaptive coding of task relevant information in frontoparietal cortex. Journal of Neuroscience, 31(41), 14592-14599. doi:10.1523/jneurosci.2616-11.2011
  • Woolgar, A., Thompson, R., Bor, D., & Duncan, J. (2011). Multi-voxel coding of stimuli, rules and responses in the frontoparietal cortex. NeuroImage, 56(2), 744-752. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2010.04.035
  • Woolgar, A., Parr, A., Thompson, R., Cusack, R., Nimmo-Smith, I., Antoun, N., Manes, F., Torralava, T., Roca, M., & Duncan, J. (2010). Fluid intelligence loss linked to restricted regions of damage within frontal and parietal cortex.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 107(33), 14899-902. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1007928107