Anterior cingulate cortex and cortical re-representation of limbic processes of emotional conflict
Vanessa NyBlom UA ’25 and Jim Stellar
This blog post is part of a series of posts that look at the way limbic-emotional processes might be represented as neocortex-cognition integration processes. We are operating under the general principles that: 1) higher brain areas re-represent functions in lower brain areas, and 2) that is necessary for these influences to participate in the symbolic logic of the neocortex that underlies explicit thinking and planning. As stated previously, the integration of implicit emotional learning from experience (e.g. an internship or study abroad activity) must be brought together in reflection with a student’s explicit cognitive career planning through academic major coursework. The result, we argue, is greater maturity on the part of that student and even the beginning of professional wisdom. In turn we see that emerging professional wisdom as helping in their success after graduation.
The anterior Cingulate Cortex:
But first, what is the anterior cingulate cortex, to what does it connect, and what do we know about its emotional functions? The anterior cingulate cortex is located just above the corpus callosum in the frontal part of the brain as indicated in the figure below in yellow.
We know that the anterior cingulate cortex aids in learning responses associated with rewards, and particularly in conflicts between rewards and also between rewards and punishments. It seems to straddle emotion and cognition, which makes it important in this blog post series. Although the anterior cingulate cortex is a multi-part structure, we will first focus on emotions and emotional regulation and return to its component anatomy in a later section below.
Emotion and emotional conflict
We take our cue here on the definition of emotion from a comprehensive review in 2003 by Rolls, from which the figure below is taken. First, the article suggests a separation of emotion and motivation where motivation is seen as more instrumental, leading to actions such as reward-seeking or punishment-avoiding. Emotion is seen as the state elicited by rewards or punishers regardless of the instrumentality of any behavior. Of course, emotion leads to action and we note that the very word emotion contains the word “motion.
To start with emotion, the figure below shows a diagram where reward and punishment are represented on the vertical axis and omission (or termination) of reward or punishment as represented on the horizontal axis.
In this figure “S” represents a controlling stimulus with “+” being rewarding, “-” being punishing, and “!” representing the omission of the stimulus. The figure thus has four components starting at the top and going clockwise: “S+”, “S-!”, “S-”, ann “S+!”, and they respectively denote the delivery of a reward, omission of punishment, the delivery of punishment, and the omission/termination of reward. Emotional words, such as elation, relief, fear, and anger, are used respectively. The further out on the axis one goes, the stronger the emotional reaction. As Rolls says, “The most important function of emotion is as part of the processes of learning goal-directed actions to obtain rewards or avoid punishers.”
So what happens when there is a conflict between emotionally charged outcomes? Here is where the anterior cingulate cortex seems to come in with its interconnections between limbic-emotional brain areas and cognitive-planning brain areas. For example, consider a college student who always thought they would be a lawyer, until they did an internship in a law firm and hated the experience. Now they have to redirect their professional goals based on that reaction. How does that emotion, perhaps starting perhaps with the passive, depressive element shown in the left portion of the above figure, get into the explicit planning of the student? How do the student’s conscious plans get redirected away from law and toward another field? What is the classic role of reflection on experience in these changing circumstances?
Studies of fMRI activity show the anterior cingulate cortex has a role in action-outcome behavior changes when reward values change (as in the hypothetical example above). The stimulus (experience) affects the emotions, affects the neurotransmitters that are produced, which then affects the overall mental state as shown in the above figure. That further explains the process that takes place to get us to the motivation that we feel when a reward, or fear of a punishment, is introduced to a situation that we have going on. Again, bringing this back to education, when a college student is told that they have a final research paper that they are going to have to have done by the last two weeks of school, and that it will be half of their grade, they are automatically motivated by the stimulus to either fear of doing badly and get a bad grade, or on the other hand, they feel positive about the a possibility of getting a good grade and boosting their class grade by half. Both this and the above example show how emotion and anticipation of emotion are linked to cognitive calculations about explicit behavioral outcomes.
Back to to anterior cingulate cortex anatomy
As mentioned above there are sub-components of the anterior cingulate cortes. Some researchers divide the anterior cingulate cortex into different regions, such as ventral and dorsal regions. The dorsal region is more connected to the prefrontal and other neocortex areas, and therefore to cognition. The anterior region is more connected to the limbic system such as amygdala, and hypothalamus, but also the insula cortex and therefore to emotion. Some have suggested that this pattern of connections facilitates emotional regulation, particularly in situations involving difficult emotions or conflict.
We think that this emotion regulation by the anterior cingulate cortex is important for planning-type decision-making based on integration of implicit limbic computations (e.g. reward history and reward-seeking) with explicit thinking and planning. This type of emotional regulation is what allows us to form plans associated with motivation, such as that of a college student planning their college years in motivation to graduate and acquire their degree, allowing them to go into the field of their choosing. We think that the compartmental anatomy may be what creates the different pathways of the cortex (like the orbital and dorsal medial), allowing them all to come together to each do their own tasks, and create motivation/reward behavior overall.
We note here that previous blog posts have focused on the orbital frontal cortex, the dorsal medial frontal cortex, and the prefrontal cortex in general in regard to accumbens-reward/pleasure or amygdala-punishment/fear or both. As this type of research unfolds, particularly in brain-scanning laboratories, we will continue to learn about the anatomical subdivisions of the anterior cingulate cortex, their interactions with these other cortical areas for function, and more of a network approach should be developed..
A special role for von Economo neurons in the anterior cingulate cortex
The anterior cingulate (and a few other brain areas) also contain Von Economo neurons, which could aid the anterior cingulate cortex in generating self-awareness and in social cognition. These are both factors in the motivational self, as well as tying into the factors we explain in college students experiential education. We already know the functions of the anterior cingulate cortex seem to revolve around reward/punishment, decision-making, and outcome conflict detection.
Because there seems to be particular involvement of these neurons with emotion, and particularly when social circumstances are involved, we want to end this blog by going deeper into the idea of social circumstances and the role of the anterior cingulate gyrus in them. Here we can find that another region of that same area aids the area in processing that social information, then allowing the anterior cingulate cortex to transform a social situation into a cognitive action, allowing for emotion, response, and more. This article by Apps et al (2016) delves into how the anterior cingulate cortex and particularly a subregion (ACCg) that goes beyond the prior beliefs and discusses how it also causes health repercussions, such as those coming from stress or anxiety. In this paper, Apps and their team created a model expressing the error content in vicarious motivation, meaning “errors” during social behaviors and the “vicarious” urge or “motivation” to do something that may be considered out of the norm. This aspect of the ACCg is what comes together with the rest of what we know about the anterior cingulate cortex and its social effects, to potentially explain both the positive and the negative sides, giving us a more whole look at the area. We recommend reading it, because when one is put in a stressful or anxiety-inducing social situation, a lot of the problem is mental, and that (of course) affects the activity of brain circuits and neurotransmitters in your brain. There are also many ways that such brain components of stress can affect someone’s physical health, such as increased heart rate or metabolism changes.
All of these separate factors in the anterior cingulate cortex come together to provide an area for emotional processing, turning into reward motivation behaviors, and pave the way for all those connected to it to enter into the decision processes at an emotional and cognitive level. And that further completes the story of the subregions of the prefrontal cortex that we have written about in a previous blog. That suggests we all should pay attention to this brain area if we want to better understand our students and ourselves.