By Emilie Reas, PLOS Neuroscience Community Editor
Over the past two decades, one of the most impactful discoveries to come from the surge in functional MRI (fMRI) research has been the existence of the brain’s “default network”. Countless studies have found that that this system, mainly comprising medial frontal, parietal and temporal, and lateral parietal regions, is most active during rest or passive tasks such as mind-wandering, imagining or self-reflection. A new study, recently published in eLife by Ben Crittenden, Daniel Mitchell and John Duncan, presents a striking finding that may flip our understanding of the role of the default network on its head.
Task-switching: the common thread?
Many of the experiments evoking default network activity compare relatively unconstrained states conducive to rest or mind-wandering against rigid task conditions with targeted cognitive demands. Thus, while these studies contrast active and passive conditions, they also incidentally contrast states of sustained attentional focus with unrestricted, dynamically changing mental landscapes. Crittenden and colleagues argue that these shifting cognitive contexts may be the common thread to default network activity and thus explain its promiscuous involvement across such heterogeneous conditions. First author Crittenden explains how their seemingly radical diversion from classic theories came about through a serendipitous pilot experiment: “I developed an initial version of the current experiment to test the idea of which regions may be involved in orchestrating large switches, and the default network came out as really strong at the individual subject level. If these results held out we could be onto something quite interesting. We tweaked the task a bit and fortunately it followed the pilot data really nicely!”
To test their new hypothesis, the researchers conducted fMRI while participants performed three levels of task switching–make a major cognitive switch, a minor switch or no switch. For example, if they were previously asked whether two geometric figures were the same shape, a minor change would be determining if two figures were the same height, whereas a major change would be determining if a dolphin is living or non-living. The minor-switch condition is similar in cognitive load to other tasks that have not shown reliable default network activation. If context changes are driving the default network, then radical task switches should more effectively engage it.
Major task switches recruit the default network
Past studies have found that the default network does not function as a whole, but roughly dissociates into three subnetworks – “core,” medial temporal lobe (MTL) and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (DMPFC) networks. Suspecting that these subnetworks are not equally involved in switching, they analyzed each subnetwork separately.
Compared to repeating the same task, major task switches activated the core and MTL networks. Small task switches did not activate any of the subnetworks. Using multivoxel pattern analysis, they further showed that the pattern of activity (versus the overall activation level) in all three subnetworks distinguished between the highly dissimilar tasks, but only the DMPFC network discriminated similar tasks. Thus, although both the overall magnitude and pattern of activity signaled contextual shifts, Crittenden raises some caution over interpreting the source of the pattern discrimination. “I imagine that a considerable amount of the classification accuracy between dissimilar tasks will be driven by lower-level visual features. However, it is still interesting that the default network is reliably representing this task information, which given the usual definition of the default network as task-negative, one may not have predicted.”
A shifting theory
If this finding is replicated, it could be the beginning of a major shift in our understanding of default network function. In contrast to the wealth of prior studies implicating the default network as “task-negative” – shutting down during demanding task conditions – here the default network was maximally engaged during dramatic contextual changes. These large task switches were objectively more challenging (participants responded more slowly) than the small-switch or no-switch conditions, in striking opposition to the notion that task difficulty suppresses the network. This implies that cognitive control or effort aren’t the key factors modulating these regions, but rather changing contextual states.
But does this model fit with the other mental states that reliability recruit the default network? Although it’s not yet clear what aspects of task shifting drive the observed response, the authors convincingly argue that indeed, many common default network activations can be accounted for by changes in cognitive context. At rest, during mind-wandering, imagining or reflecting on one’s past experiences, the mind is relatively free to jump between cognitive states. This contrasts with the constrained task conditions used in most fMRI studies that typically deactivate the default network. This relative cognitive liberty may give rise to radical mental shifts, for example, from thinking about the loud banging of the MRI scanner to planning your afternoon errands. Whether these spontaneous contextual changes are frequent enough to ramp up default network activity as observed remains to seen. Alternatively, the key factor may not be adoption of a new task, but the attentional release to do so. When switching from one task to another, the brain must let go of its attention to the first task before focusing on the next. In passive cognitive states, attention is relaxed, liberating the mind to focus on various tasks at will.
Until their findings are replicated and expanded, Crittenden explains that these possibilities are yet speculation. “I think that switches could be a contributing factor to the signal, however, by its nature the signal that we are envisioning is likely to be quite transient. More sustained activation such as during reminiscing/prospection/navigation etc. is likely to be a strong driver of default network activity. As we all like to say – more experiments are needed!”
Any views expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of PLOS.
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Emilie Reas received her PhD in Neuroscience from UC San Diego, where she used fMRI to study memory. As a postdoc at UCSD, she currently studies how the brain changes with aging and disease. In addition to her tweets for @PLOSNeuro she is @etreas.