Ventrolateral Prefrontal Cortex: Definition & Function

Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

How does damage to a small area of the brain impact the way a person acts and thinks? In this lesson, we'll examine the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, including where it is and what it does.

Prefrontal Cortex

Rudolph is a volunteer at a local clinic, and he recently saw something interesting. A patient at the clinic was acting strangely: he didn't seem to be able to control his actions at all. Rudolph heard one of the doctors say to another that the patient had damage to his prefrontal cortex. Rudolph was curious; what, exactly is the prefrontal cortex?

The cortex is the surface layer of the brain. It's the part with the wrinkles that everyone thinks about when they think about the brain. As a whole, the cortex is responsible for processing information from the five senses, helping us move, and performing higher level thinking, among other things.

The prefrontal cortex is the front part of the cortex. It's just behind the eyes and forehead, and it's responsible for personality, motivation, and planning, among other functions. So the patient who had damage to his prefrontal cortex was likely to experience problems with one or more of those things, depending on what part of the prefrontal cortex was damaged.

To help Rudolph better understand the patient he saw, let's look at one specific area of the prefrontal cortex and what it does.

Ventrolateral Prefrontal Cortex

The patient that Rudolph observed didn't just have a problem with his prefrontal cortex. He had a problem with one specific area of the prefrontal cortex, the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, or VLPFC for short.

Where is the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex? Well, to know that, you have to understand some basic anatomical directions. These are words that are used in anatomy the same way that north, south, east, and west are used in geography.

The first word to know is ventral, which just means towards the front or belly side of a mammal. So, in the brain, the prefrontal cortex (which is near the forehead) is ventral, whereas the back of the brain is not.

The second anatomical direction to know is lateral, which means towards the side or away from the middle of the body. Think about your nose versus your ears: your nose is not lateral, but your ears are.

So where is the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex located? Well, as you might guess, it is towards the front and side of the prefrontal cortex. Just as you might combine north and east to say that a place is northeast, the words 'ventral' and 'lateral' are combined to make 'ventrolateral'.

The VLPFC, shown here in yellow
Ventrolateral Prefrontal Cortex

Rudolph is confused by something. He understands that the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex is located towards the side of the prefrontal cortex, because it is lateral. But which side?

That's a good question, and something important for Rudolph to know is that each person actually has two ventrolateral prefrontal cortices: a right VLPFC and a left VLPFC. As you might guess, the right one is located on the right side of a person's brain and the left one is located on the left side of a person's brain.

Functions

Rudolph now understands where the VLPFC is, but he's still a little confused on what it does. Why did the man with damage to his VLPFC act so strange?

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