Representational organization of novel task sets during proactive encoding.


Recent multivariate analyses of brain data have boosted our understanding of the organizational principles that shape neural coding. However, most of this progress has focused on perceptual visual regions (Connolly et al., 2012), whereas far less is known about the organization of more abstract, action-oriented representations. In this study, we focused on humans’ remarkable ability to turn novel instructions into actions. While previous research shows that instruction encoding is tightly linked to proactive activations in fronto-parietal brain regions, little is known about the structure that orchestrates such anticipatory representation. We collected fMRI data while participants (both males and females) followed novel complex verbal rules that varied across control-related variables (integrating within/across stimuli dimensions, response complexity, target category) and reward expectations. Using Representational Similarity Analysis (Kriegeskorte et al., 2008) we explored where in the brain these variables explained the organization of novel task encoding, and whether motivation modulated these representational spaces. Instruction representations in the lateral prefrontal cortex were structured by the three control-related variables, while intraparietal sulcus encoded response complexity and the fusiform gyrus and precuneus organized its activity according to the relevant stimulus category. Reward exerted a general effect, increasing the representational similarity among different instructions, which was robustly correlated with behavioral improvements. Overall, our results highlight the flexibility of proactive task encoding, governed by distinct representational organizations in specific brain regions. They also stress the variability of motivation-control interactions, which appear to be highly dependent on task attributes such as complexity or novelty.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENTIn comparison with other primates, humans display a remarkable success in novel task contexts thanks to our ability to transform instructions into effective actions. This skill is associated with proactive task-set reconfigurations in fronto-parietal cortices. It remains yet unknown, however, how the brain encodes in anticipation the flexible, rich repertoire of novel tasks that we can achieve. Here we explored cognitive control and motivation-related variables that might orchestrate the representational space for novel instructions. Our results showed that different dimensions become relevant for task prospective encoding depending on the brain region, and that the lateral prefrontal cortex simultaneously organized task representations following different control-related variables. Motivation exerted a general modulation upon this process, diminishing rather than increasing distances among instruction representations.

The Journal of Neuroscience,39(42), 8386-8397