Executive dysfunction

Alfredo Ardila PhD (Dr. Ardila of Florida International University has no relevant financial relationships to disclose.)
Victor W Mark MD, editor. (Dr. Mark of the University of Alabama at Birmingham has no relevant financial relationships to disclose.)
Originally released August 6, 2001; last updated May 28, 2017; expires May 28, 2020

This article includes discussion of executive dysfunction, frontal lobe syndrome, prefrontal syndrome, dorsolateral syndrome, lateralization, medial frontal lobe syndrome, and orbitofrontal syndrome. The foregoing terms may include synonyms, similar disorders, variations in usage, and abbreviations.


The term "executive function" includes the ability to filter interference, engage in goal-directed behaviors, anticipate the consequences of one's actions, and exhibit the adaptive concept of mental flexibility. The analysis of executive functions represents one of the most important research areas in contemporary neurosciences. It is partially related to frontal lobe activity. Executive disorders have been documented in a diversity of conditions. Executive defects early in dementia predict subsequent behavior disturbances, functional decline, and mortality. In elders, intellectual tasks and everyday activity programs may benefit executive function abilities.

Key points


• The term “executive functions” includes problem solving, planning, inhibiting responses, strategy development and implementation, cognitive control, and working memory.


• Frontal processes, although not synonymous with executive functioning, are integral to its function.


• Three major variants of the executive dysfunction syndrome can be distinguished: orbitofrontal, medial, and dorsolateral.


• Executive dysfunction has been documented in a diversity of conditions, including dementia, traumatic brain injury, white matter lesions, borderline personality disorder, substance abuse, multiple system atrophy, multiple sclerosis, schizophrenia, autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, progressive supranuclear palsy, CADASIL, and Korsakoff syndrome.

Historical note and terminology

The term "executive function" is relatively new in the neurosciences. The observation that the frontal lobes were involved in regulatory behaviors, such as problem solving, planning, inhibiting responses, strategy development and implementation, and working memory, resulted in the comprehensive term "executive function." Oppenheim, in the 1890s, associated personality changes with the orbital and mesial frontal lobes (Oppenheim 1890; Oppenheim 1891). Luria distinguished 3 functional units in the brain: (1) arousal-motivation (limbic and reticular systems); (2) receiving, processing, and storing information (postrolandic cortical areas); and (3) programming, controlling, and verifying activity (frontal lobes) (Luria 1980). Luria mentions that this third unit has an executive role. "Executive functioning" is a term addressed by many but coalesced by Lezak to discriminate cognitive functions from the "how" or "whether" of human behaviors (Lezak 1983). Lezak emphasized the fluid nature of executive functioning and how dependent the cognitive and emotional aspects of functioning were on the "executive." Baddeley grouped these behaviors into cognitive domains that included problems in planning, organizing behaviors, disinhibition, perseveration, reduced fluency, and initiation (Baddeley 1986). Baddeley coined the term "dysexecutive syndrome." Each component of executive functioning has added to the array of cognitive processes, which include maintaining a problem-solving set for goal-directed behavior, interference control, flexibility, strategic planning ability, and the ability to anticipate and engage in goal-directed activity (Denckla 1994).

The definition of executive function is encompassed by actions fueled by conceptualizations, such as the ability to filter interference, engage in goal-directed behaviors, anticipate the consequences of one's actions, and the adaptive concept of mental flexibility (Luria 1969; Luria 1980; Denckla 1996; Goldberg 2001; Stuss and Knight 2002). The concept of morality, ethical behaviors, self-awareness, and the idea of the frontal lobes as manager and programmer of the human psyche are also included.

Elliott defines executive functioning as complex processing requiring the coordination of several subprocesses to achieve a particular goal (Elliott 2003). Intact frontal processes, although not synonymous with executive functioning, are integral to its function. Although attempts to localize executive functioning to discrete frontal areas have been inconclusive, the emerging view is that executive function is mediated by dynamic and flexible networks. Neuroimaging results have implicated posterior, cortical, and subcortical regions in executive functioning (Roberts et al 2002; Park et al 2011).

Phineas Gage became a metaphor for frontal lobe dysfunction, and the dysexecutive syndrome became synonymous with frontal lobe pathology. Harlow described Phineas Gage as a responsible foreman for a railroad company who suffered a tragic accident in which a tampering rod was projected through his frontal lobes when supervising construction on the Rutland and Burlington Railroad across Vermont (Harlow 1868). He was described as "no longer Gage" by associates who described his behavior as "profane," "irascible," and "irresponsible." He was reported to have died in a drunken brawl. Initial analyses of Phineas Gage's skull findings suggested that the injury involved both frontal lobes (Damasio et al 1994). Computer-generated 3-D reconstructions of a thin-slice computed tomography scan of the trajectory of the rod showed that the brain damage was limited to the left frontal lobe; furthermore, the ventricular system and the vital intracranial vascular structures were not affected (Ratiu et al 2004). It was of interest to Harlow that other cognitive functions (ie, memory, language, and sensory motor functions) remained intact, whereas personality was so greatly altered.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, clinical investigations documented diverse behavioral disorders in cases of frontal pathology. In 1880, Herman Oppenheim coined the term Witzelsucht, which was demonstrated by childishness and joking with "alleged" cheerfulness (Oppenheim 1890; Oppenheim 1891). The term moria (reflecting "stupidity" and jocular attitude) was part of the change they observed. Oppenheim's patients all had tumors involving right frontal areas, frequently invading the mesial and basal areas. Jastrowitz noted unconcern and "inappropriate cheerfulness" (Jastrowitz 1888). "Frontal lobe syndrome" was conceptualized by Feuchtwanger (Feuchtwanger 1923). He correlated frontal pathology to behaviors that were not related to overt speech, memory, or sensorimotor deficits. He emphasized the personality changes in motivation, affective dysregulation, and the capacity to regulate and integrate other behaviors. Kurt Goldstein expanded the capacity of frontal lobe behaviors to include "the abstract attitude," initiation, mental flexibility, and gaining both the components and the gestalt of the complex environmental arena (Goldstein 1944). Goldstein was also sensitive to the compensatory reactions of brain injured individuals coupled with premorbid personality characteristics.

Initially, it was not apparent that "frontal lobe" and "prefrontal cortex" were not synonymous with loci associated with executive dysfunction. The first 3 decades of the 20th century provided descriptions of the prefrontal regions with precise delineation of brain architecture. Vincent was one of the first researchers to become aware that the connections to the prefrontal cortex were important to function (Vincent 1936). Early studies elucidated hypothalamic prefrontal connections (Walker 1938), thus beginning the research into autonomic and emotional responses of the mesial-orbital prefrontal cortex. It was here that bilateral mesial prefrontal damage that involved the supplementary motor area and the singular cortex was found to produce amotivational akinetic apraxia and motor planning deficits.

As World War II produced focal deficits, frontal lobe pathology was extensively corroborated. Luria related prefrontal lobe activity with programming motor behavior, inhibiting immediate responses, abstracting, problem solving ability, verbal regulation of behavior, reorienting behavior according to the behavioral consequences, temporal integration of behavior, personality integrity, and consciousness (Luria 1969; Luria 1980).

Currently, frontal lobe function research is utilizing functional brain imaging techniques to pool collateral findings, look at antecedents, and use a large sample size to eliminate spurious variables; thus, brain regions that contribute to dysexecutive syndromes may prove to be more multifunctional (Lloyd 2000). Functional imaging has demonstrated that adults and children with focal, especially frontal, right-hemispheric lesions display similar behaviors such as attentional deficits, inability to inhibit a response, and impersistence of activity (Filley et al 1999).

The relationship between executive functions and so-called general intelligence is not well-defined yet (García-Molina et al 2010). Barbey and colleagues evaluated impairments on the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale and Delis-Kaplan Executive Function System in 182 patients with focal brain damage in relation to voxel-based lesion-symptom mapping (Barbey et al 2012). Abnormal performance in these tests was observed following damage to a distributed network of left lateralized brain areas (frontal and parietal cortex and white matter association tracts). It has also been pointed out that some executive function test such as the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test and Verbal Fluency are closely linked to fluid intelligence. Departing from the hypothesis that fluid intelligence is related to executive functioning, a confirmatory factor analysis on a mixed neuropsychiatric and nonclinical sample was performed (van Aken et al 2016). A very high correlation between fluid intelligence and executive functioning was found (0.91), with working memory being the most profound indicator. A moderate to high correlation between crystallized intelligence and executive functioning was also present. The authors concluded that this study clearly supported the strong association between executive function and intelligence, particularly fluid intelligence. Executive dysfunction observed in some clinical conditions such as Parkinson disease can be interpreted to reflect a decrease in fluid intelligence (Roca et al 2012).

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