When Things Are Better or Worse than Expected: The Medial Frontal Cortex and the Allocation of Processing Resources

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Access to limited-capacity neural systems of cognitive control must be restricted to the most relevant information. How the brain identifies and selects items for preferential processing is not fully understood. Anatomical models often place the selection mechanism in the medial frontal cortex (MFC), and one computational model proposes that the mesotelencephalic dopamine (DA) system, via its reward prediction properties, provides a ‘‘gate’’ through which information gains access to limited-capacity systems. There is a medial frontal eventrelated potential (ERP) index of attention selection, the anterior positivity (P2a), associated with DA reward system input to the MFC for the identification of task-relevant perceptual representations. The P2a has a similar spatio-temporal distribution as the medial frontal negativity (MFN), elicited to error responses or choices resulting in monetary loss. The MFN has also been linked to DA projections to the MFC but for action monitoring rather than attention selection. This study proposes that the P2a and the MFN reflect the same MFC evaluation function and use a passive reward prediction design containing neither instructed attention nor response to demonstrate that the ERP over medial frontal leads at the P2a/MFN latency is consistent with activity of midbrain DA neurons, positive to unpredicted rewards and negative when a predicted reward is withheld. This result suggests that MFC activity is regulated by DA reward system input and may function to identify items or actions that exceed or fail to meet motivational prediction.