The structure known as the prefrontal cortex sits, not surprisingly, at the front part of the brain.
It is especially well developed in humans and probably has contributed to our species becoming the most successful on the planet (depending on how you measure such things I suppose!).
It allows you to read social situations and know how to respond. It helps you stop acting on impulse and engaging in harmful and unwise behaviours. It also is critical for problem solving and organising yourself.
When it comes to memory, the prefrontal cortex also plays a crucial role.
First, it is the part of the brain that allows you to hold things in mind.
Without this so-called working memory, conversations would be very difficult as you would not remember what is being said to you in the moment to be able to formulate a response.
Let’s say you are with a garrulous friend who is telling you about three or four things in a bit of a rambling monologue. Working memory allows you to hold in mind all these different things so that you can talk about them (assuming you get a chance to respond!).
The prefrontal cortex also underpins your ability to retrieve long-term memories. These are memories that are already stored in circuitry in your brain. They have been encoded and laid down, and just need to be retrieved to be brought to mind.
Problems in this area are distinct from those where the initial laying down and storage of the memory is impaired. This latter situation means that there may be nothing there to retrieve in the first place and is a hallmark feature of Alzheimer’s disease.
Poor retrieval means it is harder to recall things, especially when under pressure, but they often come with time, especially if you are given a hint.
Tip of the tongue moments are an example of this. After the relevant moment is gone, the word then commonly appears in your mind.
There are many things that affect the function of the prefrontal cortex.
Getting older unfortunately does naturally lead to a reduction in its efficiency, and conditions that cause dementia can affect it, but there are also very much reversible “insults” that can impair its ability.
These include acute and chronic stress and depression, poor sleep and overuse of alcohol and other sedative drugs. With help, these problems can often be overcome.
Meditation and mindfulness may be especially helpful for some, and long-term meditators have been shown in studies to have better prefrontal cortex function.
Exercise, one of my favourite interventions for brain health, can also be very beneficial – improving blood flow, oxygenation, and nutrient supply.
Then there is engaging in activities that use the prefrontal cortex.
Research exists that suggests that there may be benefits using certain computer games and apps (though this is not without controversy).
Everyday tasks such as cooking also provide a great workout for this part of your brain.
Socialising – the tos and fros of conversation – is also a helpful tool that has a lot of other benefits.
So, don’t forget this important part of your brain and do your best to optimise its function. In short, be up-front!
Kailas Roberts is a psychogeriatrician and author of Mind your brain The Essential Australian Guide to Dementia now available at all good bookstores and online. Visit yourbraininmind.com or