Cognitive cost as dynamic allocation of energetic resources

S. Thomas Christie, Paul Schrater

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Scopus citations


While it is widely recognized that thinking is somehow costly, involving cognitive effort and producing mental fatigue, these costs have alternatively been assumed to exist, treated as the brain's assessment of lost opportunities, or suggested to be metabolic but with implausible biological bases. We present a model of cognitive cost based on the novel idea that the brain senses and plans for longer-term allocation of metabolic resources by purposively conserving brain activity. We identify several distinct ways the brain might control its metabolic output, and show how a control-theoretic model that models decision-making with an energy budget can explain cognitive effort avoidance in terms of an optimal allocation of limited energetic resources. The model accounts for both subject responsiveness to reward and the detrimental effects of hypoglycemia on cognitive function. A critical component of the model is using astrocytic glycogen as a plausible basis for limited energetic reserves. Glycogen acts as an energy buffer that can temporarily support high neural activity beyond the rate supported by blood glucose supply. The published dynamics of glycogen depletion and repletion are consonant with a broad array of phenomena associated with cognitive cost. Our model thus subsumes both the "cost/benefit" and "limited resource" models of cognitive cost while retaining valuable contributions of each. We discuss how the rational control of metabolic resources could underpin the control of attention, working memory, cognitive lookahead, model-free vs. model-based policy learning as well as the pattern of generalization of cognitive improvements due to video-game training experiments.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number289
JournalFrontiers in Neuroscience
Issue numberJUL
StatePublished - 2015

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2015 Christie and Schrater.


  • Cognitive control
  • Decision making
  • Energy
  • Glycogen
  • Mental effort
  • Optimal control


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