Complexity in relational processing predicts changes in functional brain network dynamics

L. Cocchi, G.S. Halford, A. Zalesky, I.H. Harding, B.J. Ramm, T. Cutmore, Ho Keung David Shum, J.B. Mattingley

Research output: Journal article publicationJournal articleAcademic researchpeer-review

57 Citations (Scopus)


The ability to link variables is critical to many high-order cognitive functions, including reasoning. It has been proposed that limits in relating variables depend critically on relational complexity, defined formally as the number of variables to be related in solving a problem. In humans, the prefrontal cortex is known to be important for reasoning, but recent studies have suggested that such processes are likely to involve widespread functional brain networks. To test this hypothesis, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging and a classic measure of deductive reasoning to examine changes in brain networks as a function of relational complexity. As expected, behavioral performance declined as the number of variables to be related increased. Likewise, increments in relational complexity were associated with proportional enhancements in brain activity and task-based connectivity within and between 2 cognitive control networks: A cingulo-opercular network for maintaining task set, and a fronto-parietal network for implementing trial-by-trial control. Changes in effective connectivity as a function of increased relational complexity suggested a key role for the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex in integrating and implementing task set in a trial-by-trial manner. Our findings show that limits in relational processing are manifested in the brain as complexity-dependent modulations of large-scale networks. © The Author 2013. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2283-2296
Number of pages14
JournalCerebral Cortex
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • Cognitive control
  • Connectivity
  • FMRI
  • Prefrontal cortex
  • Reasoning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience

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