Know Your Brain: Cingulate Cortex
Where is the cingulate cortex?
The cingulate cortex is a section of the cerebral cortex found in the medial portion of the cerebral hemispheres. In other words, to get a good view of the cingulate cortex one would have to make a slice through a brain parallel to the midline of the brain, and then look inside; the cingulate cortex is not visible from the surface of the brain. The cingulate cortex consists of the cingulate gyrus--which sits just above the corpus callosum--as well as the adjacent cingulate sulcus. It is sometimes called the limbic cortex and considered part of the limbic lobe, an area of cortex associated with emotional responses. The cingulate cortex is generally divided into anterior and posterior regions (discussed below).
What is the cingulate cortex and what does it do?
Early perspectives on the function of the cingulate cortex suggested the entire structure played an important role in emotion, but it is now thought that there are different functional specializations associated with different parts of the cingulate cortex. The most common method of dividing the structure is to split it into anterior and posterior regions; each is thought to be involved with different tasks.
The anterior cingulate cortex, or ACC, is found at the front of the cingulate cortex and wraps around the head of the corpus callosum. The ACC has connections with a variety of other brain regions, and thus the functions associated with it are diverse. There are, for example, areas of the ACC that are densely interconnected with limbic system structures like the amygdala and hypothalamus. Through these connections, the ACC is thought to be involved with a number of functions related to emotion including the regulation of overall affect, assigning emotions to internal and external stimuli, and making vocalizations associated with the expression of states or desires. The ACC also seems to contribute to the regulation of autonomic and endocrine responses, pain perception, and the selection and initiation of motor movements. Additionally, there are other areas of the ACC that are involved in various aspects of cognition ranging from decision-making to the management of social behavior.
The posterior cingulate cortex, or PCC, lies just behind the anterior cingulate. Although it is believed the PCC has important roles in cognition and affect, there is some debate as to what exactly those roles are. Neuroimaging studies indicate the PCC is active during the recall of autobiographical memories. It is also activated by emotional stimuli, and thus some have suggested it may be recruited for the recall of memories that have an emotional quality (e.g. autobiographical memories). The PCC is also considered part of the default mode network, a group of brain structures that are more active when an individual is not involved in a task that requires externally-focused attention. For example, the PCC is stimulated when someone is daydreaming or recalling memories. Some have asserted that the PCC helps to regulate the balance between internally and externally-focused attention, making it a crucial structure in awareness and attentional focus.
The connections of the cingulate cortex to other brain structures are extensive, and thus the functions of the region are varied and complex. Although there is much still to be learned about the roles of the cingulate cortex, it seems clear it makes important contributions to emotion, various types of cognition, and a number of other physiological functions.
References (in addition to linked text above):
Devinsky O, Morrell MJ, Vogt BA. Contributions of anterior cingulate cortex to behaviour. Brain. 1995 Feb;118 ( Pt 1):279-306. doi: 10.1093/brain/118.1.279. PMID: 7895011.
Leech R, Sharp DJ. The role of the posterior cingulate cortex in cognition and disease. Brain. 2014 Jan;137(Pt 1):12-32. doi: 10.1093/brain/awt162. Epub 2013 Jul 18. PMID: 23869106; PMCID: PMC3891440.