Patient lesion and neuroimaging studies have identified a rostral-to-caudal functional gradient in the lateral frontal cortex (LFC) corresponding to higher-order (complex or abstract) to lower-order (simple or concrete) cognitive control. At the same time, monkey anatomical and human functional connectivity studies show that frontal regions are reciprocally connected with parietal and temporal regions, forming parallel and distributed association networks. Here, we investigated the link between the functional gradient of LFC regions observed during control tasks and the parallel, distributed organization of association networks. Whole-brain fMRI task activity corresponding to four orders of hierarchical control [Badre, D., & D'Esposito, M. Functional magnetic resonance imaging evidence for a hierarchical organization of the prefrontal cortex. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 19, 2082–2099, 2007] was compared with a resting-state functional connectivity MRI estimate of cortical networks [Yeo, B. T., Krienen, F. M., Sepulcre, J., Sabuncu, M. R., Lashkari, D., Hollinshead, M., et al. The organization of the human cerebral cortex estimated by intrinsic functional connectivity. Journal of Neurophysiology, 106, 1125–1165, 2011]. Critically, at each order of control, activity in the LFC and parietal cortex overlapped onto a common association network that differed between orders. These results are consistent with a functional organization based on separable association networks that are recruited during hierarchical control. Furthermore, corticostriatal functional connectivity MRI showed that, consistent with their participation in functional networks, rostral-to-caudal LFC and caudal-to-rostral parietal regions had similar, order-specific corticostriatal connectivity that agreed with a striatal gating model of hierarchical rule use. Our results indicate that hierarchical cognitive control is subserved by parallel and distributed association networks, together forming multiple localized functional gradients in different parts of association cortex. As such, association networks, while connectionally organized in parallel, may be functionally organized in a hierarchy via dynamic interaction with the striatum.

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