Prefrontal dopamine levels determine the balance between cognitive stability and flexibility.


A key mechanism by which the prefrontal cortex (PFC) supports goal-oriented behaviors is attentional set formation: the formation and maintenance of an attentional bias toward relevant features. It has previously been proposed that a common single nucleotide polymorphism (val158met) in the gene that codes for the catechol O-methyltransferase (COMT) enzyme may affect an individual's ability to form and maintain an attentional set by modulating PFC dopamine (DA) levels. Here, we present data from a functional magnetic resonance imaging study that investigated the effect of this polymorphism on the tendency for older adults to display set-like behavior, and we compare these results to preexisting data from Parkinson's Disease (PD) patients. Our results demonstrate that putatively different levels of PFC DA predict both attentional set formation and right dorsolateral PFC (DLPFC) activation. More specifically, while for PD patients, val homozygotes showed heightened DLPFC activation and increased set-like behavior, for healthy older adults, the opposite pattern of results was observed. This interaction between COMT genotype and PD accords well with previous studies that have shown an excess of DA in the PFC in early PD patients and, furthermore, supports the hypothesis that there is an inverted-U shaped functional relationship between PFC DA levels and attentional set formation.