Error awareness and salience processing in the oddball task: shared neural mechanisms

Front Hum Neurosci. 2012 Aug 27;6:246. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2012.00246. eCollection 2012.


A body of work suggests similarities in the way we become aware of an error and process motivationally salient events. Yet, evidence for a shared neural mechanism has not been provided. A within subject investigation of the brain regions involved in error awareness and salience processing has not been reported. While the neural response to motivationally salient events is classically studied during target detection after longer target-to-target intervals in an oddball task and engages a widespread insula-thalamo-cortical brain network, error awareness has recently been linked to, most prominently, anterior insula cortex. Here we explore whether the anterior insula activation for error awareness is related to salience processing, by testing for activation overlap in subjects undergoing two different task settings. Using a within subjects design, we show activation overlap in six major brain areas during aware errors in an antisaccade task and during target detection after longer target-to-target intervals in an oddball task: anterior insula, anterior cingulate, supplementary motor area, thalamus, brainstem, and parietal lobe. Within subject analyses shows that the insula is engaged in both error awareness and the processing of salience, and that the anterior insula is more involved in both processes than the posterior insula. The results of a fine-grained spatial pattern overlap analysis between active clusters in the same subjects indicates that even if the anterior insula is activated for both error awareness and salience processing, the two types of processes might tend to activate non-identical neural ensembles on a finer-grained spatial level. Together, these outcomes suggest a similar functional phenomenon in the two different task settings. Error awareness and salience processing share a functional anatomy, with a tendency toward subregional dorsal and ventral specialization within the anterior insula.

Keywords: anterior insula; error awareness; eyetracking; magnetic resonance imaging; oddball processing; salience.