Sometimes feel like you just weren't ready? Well, maybe your brain wasn't. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine say they have found the part of the brain that makes sure you are prepared to deal with the unexpected. According to their new study, presented this week at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC)--a part of the frontal lobe, which is responsible for higher cognitive functions like organizing and problem solving--becomes active when a person gets ready to execute a task. Furthermore, the greater the activity in the DLPFC, the better the person actually performs.

To uncover this correlation, the researchers, led by Cameron Carter, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to monitor their subjects' brain activity as they solved different cognitive problems. In the initial test, the participants were asked either to read a word or to name the color of the ink it was written in. Sometimes the text and color contradicted, so that the word red, for example, was written in blue. Simply reading the word was easy, but when the test takers were asked to name the color instead, their DLPFCs became very active.

In a second experiment, the researchers looked at how test takers coped with switching tasks. They discovered that those who knew to expect the unexpected had higher activity in their DLPFCs than those who didn't. By the same token, the DLPFC remained inactive when people performed repetitive tasks. "The DLPFC seems to look forward to what the brain needs to do next in order to perform the task better," Carter said. "We found that people whose brains can activate the DLPFC quickly as they get ready to do a task perform much better than those whose brains can't."

The scientists also found that another brain area related to performance, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), became active during the first test. In earlier work, Carter discovered that the ACC keeps the brain alert to possible mistakes--exactly what was needed in the colors versus words scenario. "The bottom line is that although many regions of the brain work together and participate in executive functions, different regions appear to make unique contributions to the process," Carter explained. The scientists hope that this research will lead to a better understanding of the pathways the brain uses to perform cognitive functions, which in turn might help to explain and possibly treat such psychiatric disorders as schizophrenia.