The neural basis of the psychomotor vigilance task

Sleep. 2005 Sep;28(9):1059-68.


Study objective: To identify brain regions underlying the fastest and slowest reaction times on the Psychomotor Vigilance task (PVT) under well-rested conditions, as well as brain regions related to particularly poor performance after sleep deprivation.

Design: Subjects took the PVT twice while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging: once 12 hours after waking from a normal night of sleep and once after 36 hours of total sleep deprivation (TSD). Session order was counterbalanced.

Setting: UCSD J. Christian Gillin Laboratory for Sleep and Chronobiology (the sleep core of the General Clinical Research Center) and UCSD Magnetic Resonance Institute.

Patients or participants: Twenty right-handed healthy adults (8 women; age = 27.4 +/- 6.7 years; education = 15.6 +/- 1.5 years).

Measurements and results: After a normal night of sleep, optimal performance was related to greater cerebral responses within a cortical sustained attention network and the cortical and subcortical motor systems. Slow reaction times, particularly after TSD, were associated with greater activity in the "default mode network" consisting of frontal and posterior midline regions.

Conclusions: Optimal performance on the PVT appears to rely on activation both within the sustained attention system and within the motor system. Poor performance following TSD may result from a disengagement from the task and related inattention, and brain regions responsible for this localize within midline structures shown to be involved in the brain's "default mode." Finally, particularly poor performance after TSD may elicit a subsequent attentional recovery that manifests as greater activation within the same regions normally responsible for fast reaction times.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Arousal / physiology*
  • Attention / physiology
  • Brain / anatomy & histology*
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Psychomotor Agitation / epidemiology
  • Psychomotor Agitation / physiopathology*
  • Reaction Time
  • Sleep Deprivation / epidemiology