Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Behavioral studies have shown that consistent practice of a cognitive task can increase the speed of performance and reduce variability of responses and error rate, reflecting a shift from controlled to automatic processing. This study examines how the shift from controlled to automatic processing changes brain activity. A verbal Sternberg task was used with continuously changing targets (novel task, NT) and with constant, practiced targets (practiced task, PT). NT and PT were presented in a blocked design and contrasted to a choice reaction time (RT) control task (CT) to isolate working memory (WM)-related activity. The three-dimensional (3-D) PRESTO functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) sequence was used to measure hemodynamic responses. Behavioral data revealed that task processing became automated after practice, as responses were faster, less variable, and more accurate. This was accompanied specifically by a decrease in activation in regions related to WM (bilateral but predominantly left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), right superior frontal cortex (SFC), and right frontopolar area) and the supplementary motor area. Results showed no evidence for a shift of foci of activity within or across regions of the brain. The findings have theoretical implications for understanding the functional anatomical substrates of automatic and controlled processing, indicating that these types of information processing have the same functional anatomical substrate, but differ in efficiency. In addition, there are practical implications for interpreting activity as a measure for task performance, such as in patient studies. Whereas reduced activity can reflect poor performance if a task is not sensitive to practice effects, it can reflect good performance if a task is sensitive to practice effects.