ScienceDaily has an item (here) about a paper: Cole, Reynolds, Power, Repovs, Anticevic, Braver; “Multi-task connectivity reveals flexible hubs for adaptive task control” inNature Neuroscience 2013; dealing with a theory about the brain’s flexibility.
The basic idea is that the cortex has 300 or so areas with special cognitive abilities; these areas are connected through hub neurons; and the hubs form a dozen or so large networks by mutual interconnections, such as the visual, motor, or attention networks. For any particular cognitive task, certain areas will have abilities that are needed for the task and hubs must be connected to allow these areas to work together. These areas may be spread across several networks. The ability to flexibly connect hubs allows us to do novel tasks, switch between tasks quickly, re-use techniques for a different task and learn from verbal/visual instruction. This research looks at the lateral prefrontal cortex and the posterior parietal cortex as a network that can flexibly connect areas of the brain to different cognitive tasks. (In other publications they also mention the basal ganglia and thalamus being involved in the mechanism of these flexible connections.)
“Acting as a central switching station for cognitive processing, this fronto-parietal brain network funnels incoming task instructions to those brain regions most adept at handling the cognitive task at hand, coordinating the transfer of information among processing brain regions to facilitate the rapid learning of new skills, the study finds.”
“This study proposes and provides strong evidence for a “flexible hub” theory of brain function in which the fronto-parietal network is composed of flexible hubs that help to organize and coordinate processing among the other specialized networks…This study provide strong support for the flexible hub theory in two key areas…First, the study yielded new evidence that when novel tasks are processed flexible hubs within the fronto-parietal network make multiple, rapidly shifting connections with specialized processing areas scattered throughout the brain…Second, by closely analyzing activity patterns as the flexible hubs connect with various brain regions during the processing of specific tasks, researchers determined that these connection patterns include telltale characteristics that can be decoded and used to identify which specific task is being implemented by the brain.”
“The flexible hub theory suggests this is possible because flexible hubs build up a repertoire of task component connectivity patterns that are highly practiced and can be reused in novel combinations in situations requiring high adaptivity.”
Flexible hubs differ from other hubs in that they are connected to many hubs outside their network (rather than having most of their connections within their network) and the strength of these connections can be varied quickly.