Neural correlates of attention and arousal: insights from electrophysiology, functional neuroimaging and psychopharmacology

Prog Neurobiol. 1998 Jul;55(4):343-61. doi: 10.1016/s0301-0082(98)00011-2.


Attention and arousal are multi-dimensional psychological processes, which interact closely with one another. The neural substrates of attention, as well as the interaction between arousal and attention, are discussed in this review. After a brief discussion of psychological and neuropsychological theories of attention, event-related potential correlates of attention are discussed. Essentially, attention acts to modulate stimulus-induced electrical potentials (N100/P100, P300, N400), rather than generating any unique potentials of its own. Functional neuroimaging studies of attentional orienting, selective attention, divided attention and sustained attention (and its inter-dependence on underlying levels of arousal) are then reviewed. A distinction is drawn between the brain areas which are crucially involved in the top-down modulation of attention (the 'sources' of attention) and those sensory-association areas whose activity is modulated by attention (the 'sites' of attentional expression). Frontal and parietal (usually right-lateralised) cortices and thalamus are most often associated with the source of attentional modulation. Also, the use of functional neuroimaging to test explicit hypotheses about psychological theories of attention is emphasised. These experimental paradigms form the basis for a 'new generation' of functional imaging studies which exploit the dynamic aspect of imaging and demonstrate how it can be used as more than just a 'brain mapping' device. Finally, a review of psychopharmacological studies in healthy human volunteers outlines the contributions of the noradrenergic, cholinergic and dopaminergic neurotransmitter systems to the neurochemical modulation of human attention and arousal. While, noradrenergic and cholinergic systems are involved in 'low-level' aspects of attention (e.g. attentional orienting), the dopaminergic system is associated with more 'executive' aspects of attention such as attentional set-shifting or working memory.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Arousal / drug effects
  • Arousal / physiology*
  • Attention / drug effects
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Dopamine / physiology*
  • Electroencephalography
  • Event-Related Potentials, P300 / drug effects
  • Event-Related Potentials, P300 / physiology
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Norepinephrine / physiology*
  • Tomography, Emission-Computed


  • Dopamine
  • Norepinephrine