Activation patterns of the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex and frontal pole predict individual differences in decision impulsivity


Intertemporal choice refers to decisions that need to weigh different rewards at different time points in the future. Decision impulsivity manifests in the tendency of choosing smaller immediate options rather than larger later ones. Previous studies have suggested that decision impulsivity in intertemporal decision-making shares similar cognitive and neural mechanisms with risky decision-making. The present study theorizes on and examines whether the activation patterns of the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex (DMPFC) and the frontal pole (FP) during the risk-taking “cups task”, as captured in the scanner, can predict the delay discounting rate (k) based on an intertemporal decision task performed outside the scanner. To this end, we scanned with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) techniques a sample of 257 college students (N = 257) while performing the cups task. Univariate analyses showed that activation levels of the DMPFC and the FP were inversely correlated with risk preference, but not with the delay discounting rate k. Multivariate pattern analysis, which can overcome key limitations of the univariate analyses, showed that activation patterns of these two regions predict the delay discounting rate k. These results confirmed the important roles of DMPFC and FP in decision impulsivity and the utility of using multivariate pattern analysis with fMRI data involving decision making tasks.

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QW was supported by the Project of Humanities and Social Sciences from Ministry of Education. GX was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) and the Israel Science Foundation (ISF) joint project (31861143040), and the Guangdong Pearl River Talents Plan Innovative and Entrepreneurial Team grant (2016ZT06S220). QH was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (31972906), Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program for Chongqing Overseas Returned Scholars (cx2017049), and Open Research Fund of the Key Laboratory of Mental Health, Institute of Psychology, Chinese Academy of Sciences (KLMH2019K05). We would like to thank Prof. Ofir Turel from California State University, Fullerton for his helpful suggestions and language edits in the revision process of this work.

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QW, CC, GX, and QH designed the study, QW and QH collected the data, QW and QH performed the analysis, CL and QH finished the first draft of the manuscript. All authors made critical revisions to the manuscript and the final version of the manuscript was approved by all authors.

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Correspondence to Gui Xue or Qinghua He.

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All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the Institutional Review Board of the Beijing Normal University.

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Lv, C., Wang, Q., Chen, C. et al. Activation patterns of the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex and frontal pole predict individual differences in decision impulsivity. Brain Imaging and Behavior 15, 421–429 (2021).

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  • Intertemporal choice
  • decision impulsivity
  • dorsal medial prefrontal cortex
  • frontal pole
  • multivariate pattern analysis