"Cognitive flexibility" refers to the general capacity to formulate, identify, and implement alternative behavioral strategies when current strategies fail to achieve desired results. For animals, this capacity is essential for survival. For humans, it is also required for solving novel problems and seeking out new experiences and opportunities to learn. Oftentimes, changes in behavioral strategy require the shifting of attention from nonessential aspects of the environment to those that are of importance in implementing newly-formulated plans.
Unfortunately, deficits in cognitive flexibility are hallmarks of various psychological and neurodevelopmental disorders such as schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder, and autism. These disorders are often characterized by severe figidities in thoughts and actions, and somtimes by persistent and stereotyped movements or attentional focus that are of no adaptive significance. Therefore, understanding the physiological processes that govern behavioral flexibility is of obvious importance to treating individuals who suffer from defects in this capacity.
Work in my lab is focused on developing novel experimental paradigms with rats to explore the physiological processes underlying the representation of behavioral strategies and the ability to shift strategies in order to meet changes in environmental contingencies. Rats have proven capable of performing sophisticated tasks that are formally similar to those used to assess cognitive flexibility in human subjects. Our apporach involves the recording of neural activity in the frontal cortex of awake, behaving subjects as they perform tasks requiring them to shift their attention to various characteristics of visual and auditory stimuli in order to acquire rewards. Eventually, we hope to use these techniques to more fully characterize the pharmacological systems underlying attention and behavioral flexibility, in order to help guide the development of treatments to enhance these capacities in cognitively-challenged and normal individuals.