Sustained attention deficits occur in several neuropsychiatric disorders. However, the underlying neurobiological mechanisms are still incompletely understood. To that end, functional MRI was used to investigate the neural substrates of sustained attention (vigilance) using the rapid visual information processing (RVIP) task in 25 healthy volunteers. In order to better understand the neural networks underlying attentional abilities, brain regions where task-induced activation correlated with task performance were identified. Performance of the RVIP task activated a network of frontal, parietal, occipital, thalamic, and cerebellar regions. Deactivation during task performance was seen in the anterior and posterior cingulate, insula, and the left temporal and parahippocampal gyrus. Good task performance, as defined by better detection of target stimuli, was correlated with enhanced activation in predominantly right fronto-parietal regions and with decreased activation in predominantly left temporo-limbic and cingulate areas. Factor analysis revealed that these performance-correlated regions were grouped into two separate networks comprised of positively activated and negatively activated intercorrelated regions. Poor performers failed to significantly activate or deactivate these networks, whereas good performers either activated the positive or deactivated the negative network, or did both. The fact that both increased activation of task-specific areas and increased deactivation of task-irrelevant areas mediate cognitive functions underlying good RVIP task performance suggests two independent circuits, presumably reflecting different cognitive strategies, can be recruited to perform this vigilance task.

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Author notes


Current address: Section of Neuroscience and Emotion, Department of Psychological Medicine, Institute of Psychiatry, KCL, London SE5 8AF, UK.

Current address: Neuroimaging Research Branch, NIDA-IRP, 5500 Nathan Shock Drive, Baltimore, MD 21224, USA.