Common neural recruitment across diverse sustained attention tasks

PLoS One. 2012;7(11):e49556. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0049556. Epub 2012 Nov 20.


At one level "sustained attention" is simply a description of a task demand. It is often used, however, in reference to a putatively unitary capacity to remain engaged in tasks that are lengthy, dull, repetitive and/or characterised by long intervals between relevant events. Deficits in sustained attention have been reported in a range of clinical conditions. Despite this, there is paucity of well-controlled human functional imaging evidence about regions commonly recruited during diverse sustained attention tasks. Here, for the first time, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to monitor brain activity patterns as healthy volunteers performed two sustained attention tasks. The first, widely used in clinical assessment, required participants to count tones separated by long unpredictable intervals. This was contrasted with a control counting condition in which tones were presented at a brisk, regular rate. The second task was the Sustained Attention to Response Test (SART) in which participants responded to sequentially presented digits with the exception of a nominated infrequent no-go target. In the control condition, no-go trials were explicitly absent, removing the requirement to maintain a readiness to withhold responses. Although there were distinct patterns of activation associated with each task relative to its control, activity common to both tasks was found in the bilateral inferior frontal operculum, anterior cingulate, and bilateral premotor cortex. Although some researchers argue for a specific role of the inferior frontal operculum in inhibition, our results are consistent with recent findings of a more general attentional role for this area. The maintenance of a goal directed stance in the absence of strong environmental facilitation is challenging and this may underpin the sensitivity of sustained attention tasks to functional difficulties in a range of clinical groups.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attention*
  • Brain / anatomy & histology*
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping / methods*
  • Female
  • Frontal Lobe / physiology
  • Gyrus Cinguli / physiology
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Male
  • Models, Neurological
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Reproducibility of Results