Are you listening? Brain activation associated with sustained nonspatial auditory attention in the presence and absence of stimulation

Hum Brain Mapp. 2014 May;35(5):2233-52. doi: 10.1002/hbm.22323. Epub 2013 Aug 2.


Neuroimaging studies investigating the voluntary (top-down) control of attention largely agree that this process recruits several frontal and parietal brain regions. Since most studies used attention tasks requiring several higher-order cognitive functions (e.g. working memory, semantic processing, temporal integration, spatial orienting) as well as different attentional mechanisms (attention shifting, distractor filtering), it is unclear what exactly the observed frontoparietal activations reflect. The present functional magnetic resonance imaging study investigated, within the same participants, signal changes in (1) a "Simple Attention" task in which participants attended to a single melody, (2) a "Selective Attention" task in which they simultaneously ignored another melody, and (3) a "Beep Monitoring" task in which participants listened in silence for a faint beep. Compared to resting conditions with identical stimulation, all tasks produced robust activation increases in auditory cortex, cross-modal inhibition in visual and somatosensory cortex, and decreases in the default mode network, indicating that participants were indeed focusing their attention on the auditory domain. However, signal increases in frontal and parietal brain areas were only observed for tasks 1 and 2, but completely absent for task 3. These results lead to the following conclusions: under most conditions, frontoparietal activations are crucial for attention since they subserve higher-order cognitive functions inherently related to attention. However, under circumstances that minimize other demands, nonspatial auditory attention in the absence of stimulation can be maintained without concurrent frontal or parietal activations.

Keywords: attention; auditory perception; baseline shift; default mode network; fMRI.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation
  • Adult
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Brain / blood supply
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Linear Models
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Oxygen / blood
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Space Perception / physiology*
  • Statistics as Topic
  • Young Adult


  • Oxygen