Anterior Cingulate Cortex Signals the Need to Control Intrusive Thoughts during Motivated Forgetting.
How do people limit awareness of unwanted memories? When such memories intrude, a control process engages the right DLPFC (rDLPFC) to inhibit hippocampal activity and stop retrieval. It remains unknown how the need for control is detected, and whether control operates proactively to prevent unwelcome memories from being retrieved, or responds reactively, to counteract intrusions. We hypothesized that dorsal ACC (dACC) detects the emergence of an unwanted trace in awareness and transmits the need for inhibitory control to rDLPFC. During a memory suppression task, we measured in humans (both sexes) trial-by-trial variations in the theta power and N2 amplitude of dACC, two EEG markers that are thought to reflect the need for control. With simultaneous EEG-fMRI recordings, we tracked interactions among dACC, rDLPFC, and hippocampus during suppression. We found a clear role of dACC in detecting the need for memory control and upregulating prefrontal inhibition. Importantly, we identified distinct early (300-450 ms) and late (500-700 ms) dACC contributions, suggesting both proactive control before recollection and reactive control in response to intrusions. Stronger early activity was associated with reduced hippocampal activity and diminished BOLD signal in dACC and rDLPFC, suggesting that preempting retrieval reduced overall control demands. In the later window, dACC activity was larger, and effective connectivity analyses revealed robust communication from dACC to rDLPFC and from rDLPFC to hippocampus, which are tied to successful forgetting. Together, our findings support a model in which dACC detects the emergence of unwanted content, triggering top-down inhibitory control, and in which rDLPFC countermands intruding thoughts that penetrate awareness.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Preventing unwanted memories from coming to mind is an adaptive ability of humans. This ability relies on inhibitory control processes in the prefrontal cortex to modulate hippocampal retrieval processes. How and when reminders to unwelcome memories come to trigger prefrontal control mechanisms remains unknown. Here we acquired neuroimaging data with both high spatial and temporal resolution as participants suppressed specific memories. We found that the anterior cingulate cortex detects the need for memory control, responding both proactively to early warning signals about unwelcome content and reactively to intrusive thoughts themselves. When unwanted traces emerge in awareness, anterior cingulate communicates with prefrontal cortex and triggers top-down inhibitory control over the hippocampus through specific neural oscillatory networks.
Online Publication Date