Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Previous studies on the neural correlates of perceptual awareness implicate sensory-specific regions and higher cortical regions such as the prefrontal cortex (PFC) in this process. The specific role of PFC regions is, however, unknown. PFC activity could be bottom-up driven, integrating signals from sensory regions. Alternatively, PFC regions could serve more active top-down processes that help to define the content of consciousness. To compare these alternative views of PFC function, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging and measured brain activity specifically related to conscious perception of items that varied in ease of identification (by being presented 0, 12, or 60 times previously). A bottom-up account predicts that PFC activity would be largely insensitive to stimulus difficulty, whereas a top-down account predicts reduced PFC activity as identification becomes easier. The results supported the latter prediction by showing reduced activity for previously presented compared to novel items in the PFC and several other regions. This was further confirmed by a functional connectivity analysis showing that the interaction between frontal and visual sensory regions declined as a function of ease of identification. Given the attribution of top-down processing to PFC regions in combination with the marked decline in PFC activity for easy items, these findings challenge the prevailing notion that the PFC is necessary for consciousness.