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Neural mechanisms in sustained attention

Ability to stay goal-oriented, and stay alert differs among individuals. A recent European study has delved into neuronal mechanisms behind sustained attention..
Neural mechanisms in sustained attention
The elderly and sleep-deprived as well as people with brain injury and mental disorders such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and schizophrenia lack this ability. The EU-funded 'Arousal, cortical signal-to-noise, and the ability to sustain attention' (ALERT AND FOCUSED) project was initiated to understand neural mechanisms involved in maintaining sustained attention and assess the effects of alertness training.

Electroencephalography (EEG) and skin conductance response (SCR) measurements were used to identify neural mechanisms involved in sustained attention in 32 subjects. They were given a time-intensive task to perform for 80 minutes with monetary motivation being offered after 60 minutes.

Assessment revealed a reduction in arousal and cortical signal stability over time in the frontal and occipital scalp regions. This corresponds with poorer performance and lapse in attention. Motivation only partially improved performance for a brief period, suggesting that performing prolonged tasks can affect cognitive control.

However, the use of compensatory neural mechanisms to consciously focus on tasks cannot be completely discounted. Surprisingly, no association was found between SCR recordings of arousal and variations in attentional stability and performance.

In contrast to results from previous EEG studies where bilateral attentional modulations were seen, early stimulus-evoked event-related potentials (ERPs) were only seen in one brain hemisphere. In other words, sustained attention to one location in space produced completely lateralised early ERPs in the posterior occipital cortex. This could be indicative of top-down modulations of feed-forward sensory processing. Further studies are required to explore the influence of task structure on attentional control dynamics and stimulus processing.

Project activities have confirmed the link between attention deficits and unstable cortical signals in the frontal and visual brain areas. The study of underlying neural mechanisms also provided new insights into therapeutic options with potential. This has important applications in the educational and clinical domain, particularly in the rehabilitation of patients with brain injury or mental disorders.

Related information

Keywords

Sustained attention, alert, goal, behaviour, brain injury, attention-deficit, neural mechanism, electroencephalography, skin conductance response, arousal, cortical signal stability, frontal, occipital, event-related potential
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