Despite the subjective experience of being in full and deliberate control of our actions, our daily routines rely on a continuous and interactive engagement of sensory evaluation and response preparation streams. They unfold automatically and unconsciously and are seamlessly integrated with cognitive control which is mobilized by stimuli that evoke ambiguity or response conflict. Methods with high spatio-temporal sensitivity are needed to provide insight into the interplay between automatic and controlled processing.
This study used anatomically-constrained MEG to examine the underlying neural dynamics in a flanker task that manipulated S-R incongruity at the stimulus (SI) and response levels (RI). Though irrelevant, flankers evoked automatic preparation of motor plans which had to be suppressed and reversed following the target presentation on RI trials. Event-related source power estimates in beta (15–25 Hz) frequency band in the sensorimotor cortex tracked motor preparation and response in real time and revealed switching from the incorrectly-primed to the correctly-responding hemisphere.
In contrast, theta oscillations (4–7 Hz) were sensitive to the levels of incongruity as the medial and ventrolateral frontal cortices were especially activated by response conflict. These two areas are key to cognitive control and their integrated contributions to response inhibition and switching were revealed by phase-locked co-oscillations.
These processes were pharmacologically manipulated with a moderate alcohol beverage or a placebo administered to healthy social drinkers. Alcohol selectively decreased accuracy to response conflict. It strongly attenuated theta oscillations during decision making and partly re-sculpted relative contributions of the frontal network without affecting the motor switching process subserved by beta band.
Our results indicate that motor preparation is initiated automatically even when counterproductive but that it is monitored and regulated by the prefrontal cognitive control processes under conflict. They further confirm that the regulative top-down functions are particularly vulnerable to alcohol intoxication.