Prefrontal Cortex: Definition, Role, Development & More

We learn about the human brain at school. Do you remember the first time it amazed you? Your brain has a lot of qualities and functions that are vital to your existence. There’s so much you won’t be able to do or experience without it. Just like other human organs, you can suffer if your brain isn’t working properly. It’s important to know and understand what goes on inside our bodies. This article will help you get acquainted with the prefrontal cortex: the brain’s control center. 


Richard Owen appears to have introduced the term prefrontal in 1868. For him, the prefrontal area was restricted to the anterior-most part of the frontal lobe (approximately corresponding to the frontal pole). It’s said that his choice of the term was based on the prefrontal bone present in most amphibians and reptiles. 

The front part of the brain’s frontal lobes, the prefrontal cortex lies in front of the motor (planning and voluntary movements)  and premotor (prepares the body’s muscles for exact movements) areas. This brain region is responsible for helping you plan decision making, personality expression, and complex cognitive behavior. Its basic activity involves joining thoughts and actions together to achieve internal goals.


The prefrontal cortex is best known for its executive function. It has the ability to work out conflicting thoughts–determine good and bad, better and best, and same and different. It can also predict outcomes based on goal-oriented actions, expect results, know consequences of current activities, etc. Above all, “social control” is its ability to suppress urges that could lead to socially unacceptable events. 

There are many roles the prefrontal cortex has that a few words aren’t enough to discuss them. To summarize, this brain region contributes to various matters such as focusing one’s attention; self-monitoring; impulse control; short-term memory; managing emotional reactions; time management; reasoning; anticipating events in the environment; planning for the future; and adjusting complex behaviors (e.g. “I can’t do ________ until ________ happens”)


The development of the brain’s prefrontal cortex is very important for complex behavioral performance. Development and maturation happen primarily during adolescence and reach peak around 25 years of age. The brain develops in a back to front manner, which means the prefrontal cortex is the last portion to fully develop. Children already have functional prefrontal cortices, but still haven’t complex decision-making and planning skills adults have.

Experience plays a significant part in this development. For example, when teenagers are exposed to particular challenges, they may mature more quickly. They can do some things as well as adults, but only to an extent. A teen’s prefrontal cortex has yet to grow many connections in the limbic system. 

Effect On Behavior

On September 13, 1848, railroad worker Phineas Gage got into an accident that drove a three-foot long iron bar through his skull. Although he survived, his behavior changed drastically. He went from being a hard-working and friendly laborer to a rude, foul-mouthed drifter. Examination of Mr. Gage’s skull has revealed that he suffered damage to the frontal lobes of his brain. The primary area of injury was a part of the prefrontal cortex called the orbitofrontal cortex (aka eye sockets).

Today, there is more evidence that the prefrontal cortex may be important for moral behavior. Adults who suffer damage to the prefrontal cortex develop problems with making decisions and with behaving appropriately in social situations. Scientists at the University of Iowa have published a report (Nature Neuroscience, November 1999) about two adults who suffered prefrontal cortex damage when they were very young. These two individuals have severe behavioral problems including impaired decision-making ability and defective social and moral reasoning. Prefrontal cortex damage can lead to impulsive and unhealthy behavior

How to Improve Function

Because of neuroplasticity, the brain is able to organize itself by forming neural connections throughout life. Neuroplasticity allows neurons, aka nerve cells, to adapt to new situations or changes in the environment, and compensate for injury or disease. Like using your body’s muscles, you can enhance your prefrontal cortex to help it function better. Here are a few ways:

Stress Management

Your brain struggles when your stress levels are high. Your energy is used up. Once your prefrontal cortex suffers, your willpower weakens as a result. Consciously managing your stress levels by doing what works for you (taking deep breaths, relaxation, therapy, etc.) is necessary.

Brain Games 

Mere playing games that exercise your brain such as word puzzles and memory games help a lot in improving your prefrontal cortex function and maintaining its good shape. 


If you’re sure you can still hold out, try. Stick to your plan. Practicing self-control, even when you’re running out of it, can help you have more. Studies prove how this is effective, including in breaking bad habits. 

Delayed Gratification 

Saving for later is great for your brain as a whole. Teaching yourself to wait instills patience and control which are vital in preventing prefrontal cortex complications.   

Healthy Lifestyle

Proper sleep, exercise, and a balanced diet are all essential in caring for your brain. Health issues can cause harm to your overall well-being, including your prefrontal cortex. Research says that people who have a healthy lifestyle are happier, live the longest, and are most productive.


Taking up a hobby like cooking not only improves your skills, but also encourages you to make use of your senses, which serves as an excellent workout for your brain.


The act of meditating, no matter which type you prefer, is scientifically linked to increasing reserve of willpower, improving attention and focus, stress management, and self-awareness.


Negative emotions can fog your mind. Doing what you love and being in a good state of mind helps battle brain conditions, specifically, prefrontal cortex problems.

Indeed, the prefrontal cortex is a vital part of the human brain. It’s responsible for a lot of functions no other part can do. A healthy prefrontal cortex is essential. There are ways to exercise and take care of it. If it gets out of shape, there are ways to treat it. Medical professionals alone can help you do all of that. Seeking their advice is more than necessary in attempting to use it well, care for it, or save it from complications.  

Can you relate? Share your thoughts below. We’d love to hear them!

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Written by Hannah Grace

A B.S. Psychology graduate who fights both real and imaginary shadows every day with music and words.

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