Behavioural and physiological impairments of sustained attention after traumatic brain injury

Brain Res Cogn Brain Res. 2004 Aug;20(3):403-14. doi: 10.1016/j.cogbrainres.2004.03.019.


Sustaining attention under conditions of low external demand taxes our ability to stay on task and to avoid more appealing trains of thought or environmental distractions. By contrast, a stimulating, novel environment engages attention far more freely without the subjective feeling of having to override monotony. Our ability to maintain a goal-directed focus without support from the environment requires the endogenous control of behaviour. This control can be modulated by fronto-parietal circuits and this ability is compromised following traumatic brain injury (TBI) leading to increased lapses of attention. In this paper, we further explore a laboratory paradigm that we argue is particularly sensitive to sustained attention as opposed to other aspects of attentional control involving the selection and management of goals in working memory. The paradigm (fixed sequence Sustained Attention to Response Task--SARTfixed) involves withholding a key press to an infrequent no-go target embedded within a predictable sequence of numbers. We demonstrate that TBI patients in this study make disproportionately more errors than controls on this task. An analysis of response times (RTs) and EEG alpha power across the task demonstrates group differences preceding the critical no-go trial. Controls demonstrate a lengthening of RTs accompanied by desynchronization of power within the alpha band (approximately 10 Hz) preceding the no-go trial. Conversely, the TBI group showed a shortening of RTs during this period with no evidence of alpha desynchronization. These findings suggest that TBI patients may have dysfunctional alpha generators as a consequence of their injury that impairs endogenous control during the task.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Alpha Rhythm
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity / etiology
  • Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity / physiopathology*
  • Behavior / physiology
  • Brain Injuries / complications
  • Brain Injuries / physiopathology*
  • Cortical Synchronization
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neuropsychological Tests