We investigated how the brain integrates motivational and attentional signals by using a neuroimaging paradigm that provided separate estimates for transient cue- and target-related signals, in addition to sustained block-related responses. Participants performed a Posner-type task in which an endogenous cue predicted target location on 70% of trials, while motivation was manipulated by varying magnitude and valence of a cash incentive linked to task performance. Our findings revealed increased detection performance (d') as a function of incentive value. In parallel, brain signals revealed that increases in absolute incentive magnitude led to cue- and target-specific response modulations that were independent of sustained state effects across visual cortex, fronto-parietal regions, and subcortical regions. Interestingly, state-like effects of incentive were observed in several of these brain regions, too, suggesting that both transient and sustained fMRI signals may contribute to task performance. For both cue and block periods, the effects of administering incentives were correlated with individual trait measures of reward sensitivity. Taken together, our findings support the notion that motivation improves behavioral performance in a demanding attention task by enhancing evoked responses across a distributed set of anatomical sites, many of which have been previously implicated in attentional processing. However, the effect of motivation was not simply additive as the impact of absolute incentive was greater during invalid than valid trials in several brain regions, possibly because motivation had a larger effect on reorienting than orienting attentional mechanisms at these sites.
Keywords: attention; fMRI; faces; motivation; vision.