Load-Dependent Prefrontal Cortex Activation Assessed by Continuous-Wave Near-Infrared Spectroscopy during Two Executive Tasks with Three Cognitive Loads in Young Adults


The present study examined the evolution of the behavioral performance, subjectively perceived difficulty, and hemodynamic activity of the prefrontal cortex as a function of cognitive load during two different cognitive tasks tapping executive functions. Additionally, it investigated the relationships between these behavioral, subjective, and neuroimaging data. Nineteen right-handed young adults (18–22 years) were scanned using continuous-wave functional near-infrared spectroscopy during the performance of n-back and random number generation tasks in three cognitive load conditions. Four emitter and four receptor optodes were fixed bilaterally over the ventrolateral and dorsolateral prefrontal cortices to record the hemodynamic changes. A self-reported scale measured the perceived difficulty. The findings of this study showed that an increasing cognitive load deteriorated the behavioral performance and increased the perceived difficulty. The hemodynamic activity increased parametrically for the three cognitive loads of the random number generation task and in a two-back and three-back compared to a one-back condition. In addition, the hemodynamic activity was specifically greater in the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex than in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex for both cognitive tasks (random number generation and n-back tasks). Finally, the results highlighted some links between cerebral oxygenation and the behavioral performance, but not the subjectively perceived difficulty. Our results suggest that cognitive load affects the executive performance and perceived difficulty and that fNIRS can be used to specify the prefrontal cortex’s implications for executive tasks involving inhibition and working memory updating.

Brain Sciences