Neural Architecture of Selective Stopping Strategies: Distinct Brain Activity Patterns Are Associated with Attentional Capture But Not with Outright Stopping

J Neurosci. 2017 Oct 4;37(40):9785-9794. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1476-17.2017. Epub 2017 Sep 8.


In stimulus-selective stop-signal tasks, the salient stop signal needs attentional processing before genuine response inhibition is completed. Differential prefrontal involvement in attentional capture and response inhibition has been linked to the right inferior frontal junction (IFJ) and ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC), respectively. Recently, it has been suggested that stimulus-selective stopping may be accomplished by the following different strategies: individuals may selectively inhibit their response only upon detecting a stop signal (independent discriminate then stop strategy) or unselectively whenever detecting a stop or attentional capture signal (stop then discriminate strategy). Alternatively, the discrimination process of the critical signal (stop vs attentional capture signal) may interact with the go process (dependent discriminate then stop strategy). Those different strategies might differentially involve attention- and stopping-related processes that might be implemented by divergent neural networks. This should lead to divergent activation patterns and, if disregarded, interfere with analyses in neuroimaging studies. To clarify this crucial issue, we studied 87 human participants of both sexes during a stimulus-selective stop-signal task and performed strategy-dependent functional magnetic resonance imaging analyses. We found that, regardless of the strategy applied, outright stopping displayed indistinguishable brain activation patterns. However, during attentional capture different strategies resulted in divergent neural activation patterns with variable activation of right IFJ and bilateral VLPFC. In conclusion, the neural network involved in outright stopping is ubiquitous and independent of strategy, while different strategies impact on attention-related processes and underlying neural network usage. Strategic differences should therefore be taken into account particularly when studying attention-related processes in stimulus-selective stopping.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Dissociating inhibition from attention has been a major challenge for the cognitive neuroscience of executive functions. Selective stopping tasks have been instrumental in addressing this question. However, recent theoretical, cognitive and behavioral research suggests that different strategies are applied in successful execution of the task. The underlying strategy-dependent neural networks might differ substantially. Here, we show evidence that, regardless of the strategy used, the neural network involved in outright stopping is ubiquitous. However, significant differences can only be found in the attention-related processes underlying those different strategies. Thus, when studying attentional processing of salient stop signals, strategic differences should be considered. In contrast, the neural networks implementing outright stopping seem less or not at all affected by strategic differences.

Keywords: functional magnetic resonance imaging; inferior frontal gyrus; inferior frontal junction; response inhibition; stop-signal task.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping / methods*
  • Executive Function / physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Inhibition, Psychological*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Nerve Net / physiology*
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology*
  • Random Allocation
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Young Adult