Orbitofrontal Cortex: Parts, Functions And Characteristics

This part of the brain is related to planning and regulating emotions.

Orbitofrontal cortex

The human being has a large number of complex cognitive abilities that allow him to adjust to a great extent to the environment in which he is located and at the time in which he lives. He is able to plan, prepare for action, establish strategies or inhibit his own behavior. All of this is very useful both in nature and when immersed in society, for example in exchange or communication between different people and in different contexts.

For example, interacting with another person in the context of a conflict or a misfortune is not the same as at a party in a disco, for example, and being able to distinguish it and manage the behavior to suit each situation requires complex processes. Some processes that do not appear out of nowhere, but are due to the action of different brain nuclei. One of the most important in this sense and which is also key to explaining a large part of our personality is the orbitofrontal cortex, which this article is about.

Orbitofrontal cortex: description and location

The orbitofrontal cortex is called a region of the cerebral cortex which is part of the prefrontal cortex and is of great importance in the regulation of social behavior, decision-making and the inhibition of behaviors. This cortex is located in the frontal lobe, being found in both cerebral hemispheres and located approximately at the level of the orbits of the eyes (which is also the reason for its name).

The importance of this area is great, being involved in a large number of functions and even in the establishment of what we call personality. This is due, in addition to its own performance, to the fact that we are facing a part of the brain highly connected to a large number of brain regions. Among its many connections, those that go to the limbic system (especially the amygdala), the insula, the motor cortex, the thalamus, the hypothalamus or the hippocampus, the entorhinal cortex and most of the sensory areas stand out. We are also facing one of the areas of the brain that takes the longest to develop, its training not being completed until adulthood.

This brain region also has some historical importance because it is the area that was injured in the first known and documented case of a subject with brain injuries to the front of the brain who lived to tell the tale: Phineas Gage. This young man, whose orbitofrontal was pierced by an iron bar while handling explosives, managed to survive the injury, but afterwards he began to manifest severe alterations that would complicate his existence (hostility and aggressiveness, personality changes, inability to plan …) until you lose everything. The study of this case would allow to begin to visualize and investigate the importance and functions of the prefrontal region of said brain region.

Main functions of this brain region

We have previously commented that the orbitofrontal cortex is of great importance for the human being, being in fact fundamental to allow the adaptation of the human being to its natural and social environment as well as to carry out complex mental actions and future plans. Its brain connections are many, being involved in a large number of processes. Some of the best known and most explored are the following.

1. Regulation of social behavior

One of the best known functions of the orbitofrontal cortex and the one we mentioned in the introduction is to help regulate social behavior. That is, thanks to the orbitofrontal cortex we are able to adjust our actions and words to the situations, people and types of interaction that we are having at the present time. It also makes it possible to assess social norms.

2. Behavioral inhibition

Another of the key functions in which the orbitrofrontal cortex is essential is in the inhibition of behavior. That is, thanks to this brain region (among others) we are able not to do the first thing that comes to mind, or to change our behavior as we are doing it to adapt to the circumstances.

3. Involvement in personality

It cannot be said that the personality resides solely in the prefrontal cortex, but the truth is that it has been observed that the alteration of this brain region can have serious repercussions on the way of being of a person, being able to totally vary their way of behaving and react to stimuli.

4. Emotional and aggressive management

Something partly related to the previous aspects and derived largely from its connections with the limbic system is the involvement of the orbitofrontal cortex with emotional management, especially with regard to the control of defensive and aggressive responses. It is therefore an area that allows to be alert to threat stimuli.

5. Reward-punishment and learning systems

Studies carried out in relation to the orbitofrontal cortex have shown that this prefrontal region, especially with regard to its medial areas, is related to sensitivity and learning of the relationship between behavior and reinforcement. Its most lateral areas do the same with the behavior-punishment relationship. In addition, it allows the existence of sensitivity towards one or the other, something that is linked to our future choices of behavior.

6. Integration of senses-experience information

Although it was already suspected that there was an involvement by the orbitofrontal cortex in this, recent research has shown that this cortex is activated and allows the integration of current sensory information with information previously accumulated from previous moments.

7. Decision-making analysis

Directly related to the above, it has been identified that the orbitofrontal cortex has a great implication when making decisions, given the integration of the information from the previous point and its analysis. This allows us to anticipate the choice of behavioral response that we are going to carry out, although this may vary depending on the new experiences.

8. Motivation and planning

Another area in which the orbitofrontal cortex has been involved is in its ability to motivate itself, especially when it comes to having initiative towards or maintaining behavior. It also influences the planning of behavior.

What problems can arise from your injury?

Given some of the multiple functions of this brain region and how important they are in our daily lives, it is easy to imagine the type of difficulties that your injury can generate.

It is common for lesions of the orbitofrontal cortex to result in the appearance of aggressive behaviors, limitations in the ability to bond with others and have empathy, social disconnection and disobedience of social norms, apathy, inability to generate, initiate or maintain plans and a high level of disinhibition that includes difficulties in controlling impulses (including addictions, sexual activity, eating or aggressiveness) and which can lead to legal problems. In fact, there is a specific syndrome that refers to the appearance of these symptoms due to brain injury: the orbitofrontal syndrome.

The injuries themselves can appear from different types of injuries, such as head trauma, lacerations (such as Phineas Gage), presence of brain tumors, or infections or strokes.

Bibliographic references:

  • Bechara, A., Damasio, H, Damasio, AR (2000). Emotion, decision-making and the orbitofrontal cortex. Cereb. Cortex, 10: 295-307.
  • Kandel, ER; Schwartz, JH; Jessell, TM (2001). Principles of Neuroscience. Madrid: McGraw Hill.
  • Nogueira, R., Abolafia, JM, Drugowitsch, J., Balaguer-Ballester, E., S├ínchez-Vives, MV & Moreno-Bote, R. (2017). Lateral orbitofrontal cortex anticipates choices and integrates prior with current information. Nature Communications, 8.

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