Challenges to attention: a continuous arterial spin labeling (ASL) study of the effects of distraction on sustained attention

Neuroimage. 2011 Jan 15;54(2):1518-29. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2010.09.026. Epub 2010 Sep 17.


Maintaining attention and performance over time is an essential part of many activities, and effortful cognitive control is required to avoid vigilance decrements and interference from distraction. Regions at or near right middle frontal gyrus (Brodmann's area (BA) 9), as well as in other prefrontal and parietal areas, are often activated in studies of sustained attention (e.g., Cabeza and Nyberg, 2000; Kim et al., 2006; Lim et al., 2010). This activation has often been interpreted as representing the engagement of cognitive control processes. However, such studies are typically implemented at one level of task difficulty, without an experimental manipulation of control demands. The present study used the distractor condition sustained attention task (dSAT), which has been used extensively in animals to determine the role of neuromodulator systems in attentional performance, to test the hypotheses that BA 9 is sensitive to changes in the demand for cognitive control and that this sensitivity reflects an increased engagement of attentional effort. Continuous arterial spin labeling (ASL) was used to measure neural activity in sixteen healthy, young adults performing a sustained attention task under standard conditions and under a distraction condition that provided an experimental manipulation of demands on cognitive control. The distractor impaired behavioral performance and increased activation in right middle frontal gyrus. Larger increases in right middle frontal gyrus activity were associated with greater behavioral vulnerability to the distractor. These findings indicate that while right middle frontal gyrus regions are sensitive to demands for attentional effort and control, they may not be sufficient to maintain performance under challenge. In addition, they demonstrate the sensitivity of ASL methods to variations in task demands, and suggest that the dSAT may be a useful tool for translational cross-species and clinical research.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping / methods*
  • Female
  • Frontal Lobe / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Male
  • Spin Labels
  • Young Adult


  • Spin Labels