Basis of executive functions in fine-grained architecture of cortical and subcortical human brain networks.


Theoretical models suggest that executive functions rely on both domain-general and domain-specific processes. Supporting this view, prior brain imaging studies have revealed that executive activations converge and diverge within broadly characterized brain networks. However, the lack of precise anatomical mappings has impeded our understanding of the interplay between domain-general and domain-specific processes. To address this challenge, we used the high-resolution multimodal magnetic resonance imaging approach of the Human Connectome Project to scan participants performing 3 canonical executive tasks: n-back, rule switching, and stop signal. The results reveal that, at the individual level, different executive activations converge within 9 domain-general territories distributed in frontal, parietal, and temporal cortices. Each task exhibits a unique topography characterized by finely detailed activation gradients within domain-general territory shifted toward adjacent resting-state networks; n-back activations shift toward the default mode, rule switching toward dorsal attention, and stop signal toward cingulo-opercular networks. Importantly, the strongest activations arise at multimodal neurobiological definitions of network borders. Matching results are seen in circumscribed regions of the caudate nucleus, thalamus, and cerebellum. The shifting peaks of local gradients at the intersection of task-specific networks provide a novel mechanistic insight into how partially-specialized networks interact with neighboring domain-general territories to generate distinct executive functions.