Role of locus coeruleus in attention and behavioral flexibility

Biol Psychiatry. 1999 Nov 1;46(9):1309-20. doi: 10.1016/s0006-3223(99)00140-7.


Previous findings have implicated the noradrenergic locus coeruleus (LC) system in functions along the dimension of arousal or attention. It has remained uncertain what role this system has in attention, or what mechanisms may be involved. We review our recent work examining activity of LC neurons in monkeys performing a visual discrimination task that requires focused attention. Results indicate that LC cells exhibit phasic or tonic modes of activity, that closely correspond to good or poor performance on this task, respectively. A computational model was used to simulate these results. This model predicts that alterations in electrotonic coupling among LC cells may produce the different modes of activity and corresponding differences in performance. This model also indicates that the phasic mode of LC activity may promote focused or selective attention, whereas the tonic mode may produce a state of high behavioral flexibility or scanning attentiveness. The implications of these results for clinical disorders such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, stress disorders, and emotional and affective disorders are discussed.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology*
  • Haplorhini
  • Locus Coeruleus / physiology*
  • Neural Networks, Computer
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Norepinephrine / physiology*


  • Norepinephrine