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1.  Attention for speaking: domain-general control from the anterior cingulate cortex in spoken word production 
Accumulating evidence suggests that some degree of attentional control is required to regulate and monitor processes underlying speaking. Although progress has been made in delineating the neural substrates of the core language processes involved in speaking, substrates associated with regulatory and monitoring processes have remained relatively underspecified. We report the results of an fMRI study examining the neural substrates related to performance in three attention-demanding tasks varying in the amount of linguistic processing: vocal picture naming while ignoring distractors (picture-word interference, PWI); vocal color naming while ignoring distractors (Stroop); and manual object discrimination while ignoring spatial position (Simon task). All three tasks had congruent and incongruent stimuli, while PWI and Stroop also had neutral stimuli. Analyses focusing on common activation across tasks identified a portion of the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) that was active in incongruent trials for all three tasks, suggesting that this region subserves a domain-general attentional control function. In the language tasks, this area showed increased activity for incongruent relative to congruent stimuli, consistent with the involvement of domain-general mechanisms of attentional control in word production. The two language tasks also showed activity in anterior-superior temporal gyrus (STG). Activity increased for neutral PWI stimuli (picture and word did not share the same semantic category) relative to incongruent (categorically related) and congruent stimuli. This finding is consistent with the involvement of language-specific areas in word production, possibly related to retrieval of lexical-semantic information from memory. The current results thus suggest that in addition to engaging language-specific areas for core linguistic processes, speaking also engages the ACC, a region that is likely implementing domain-general attentional control.
PMCID: PMC3856851  PMID: 24368899
attentional control; anterior cingulate cortex; superior temporal cortex; picture-word interference; Simon; Stroop; word production
2.  Neural Correlates of Individual Performance Differences in Resolving Perceptual Conflict 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(8):e42849.
Attentional mechanisms are a crucial prerequisite to organize behavior. Most situations may be characterized by a ‘competition’ between salient, but irrelevant stimuli and less salient, relevant stimuli. In such situations top-down and bottom-up mechanisms interact with each other. In the present fMRI study, we examined how interindividual differences in resolving situations of perceptual conflict are reflected in brain networks mediating attentional selection. Doing so, we employed a change detection task in which subjects had to detect luminance changes in the presence and absence of competing distractors. The results show that good performers presented increased activation in the orbitofrontal cortex (BA 11), anterior cingulate (BA 25), inferior parietal lobule (BA 40) and visual areas V2 and V3 but decreased activation in BA 39. This suggests that areas mediating top-down attentional control are stronger activated in this group. Increased activity in visual areas reflects distinct neuronal enhancement relating to selective attentional mechanisms in order to solve the perceptual conflict. Opposed to good performers, brain areas activated by poor performers comprised the left inferior parietal lobule (BA 39) and fronto-parietal and visual regions were continuously deactivated, suggesting that poor performers perceive stronger conflict than good performers. Moreover, the suppression of neural activation in visual areas might indicate a strategy of poor performers to inhibit the processing of the irrelevant non-target feature. These results indicate that high sensitivity in perceptual areas and increased attentional control led to less conflict in stimulus processing and consequently to higher performance in competitive attentional selection.
PMCID: PMC3423441  PMID: 22916169
3.  Effects of Working Memory Load on Visual Selective Attention: Behavioral and Electrophysiological Evidence 
Working memory and attention interact in a way that enables us to focus on relevant items and maintain current goals. The influence of working memory on attention has been noted in several studies using dual task designs. Multitasking increases the demands on working memory and reduces the amount of resources available for cognitive control functions such as resolving stimulus conflict. However, few studies have investigated the temporal activation of the cortex while multitasking. The present study addresses the extent to which working memory load influences early (P1) and late (P300) attention-sensitive event-related potential components using a dual task paradigm. Participants performed an arrow flanker task alone (single task condition) or concurrently with a Sternberg memory task (dual task condition). In the flanker task, participants responded to the direction of a central arrow surrounded by congruent or incongruent arrows. In the dual task condition, participants were presented with a Sternberg task that consisted of either four or seven consonants to remember prior to a short block of flanker trials. Participants were slower and less accurate on incongruent versus congruent trials. Furthermore, accuracy on incongruent trials was reduced in both dual task conditions. Likewise, P300 amplitude to incongruent flanker stimuli decreased when working memory load increased. These findings suggest that interference from incongruent flankers was more difficult to suppress when working memory was taxed. In addition, P1 amplitude was diminished on all flanker trials in the dual task condition. This result indicates that top-down attentional control over early visual processing is diminished by increasing demands on working memory. Both the behavioral and electrophysiological results suggest that working memory is critical in maintaining attentional focus and resolving conflict.
PMCID: PMC3115462  PMID: 21716633
dual task; working memory; ERPs; attention; P1; P300
4.  Neural suppression of irrelevant information underlies optimal working memory performance 
Our ability to focus attention on task-relevant information and ignore distractions is reflected by differential enhancement and suppression of neural activity in sensory cortex (i.e., top-down modulation). Such selective, goal-directed modulation of activity may be intimately related to memory, such that the focus of attention biases the likelihood of successfully maintaining relevant information by limiting interference from irrelevant stimuli. Despite recent studies elucidating the mechanistic overlap between attention and memory, the relationship between top-down modulation of visual processing during working memory (WM) encoding and subsequent recognition performance has not yet been established. Here, we provide neurophysiological evidence in healthy, young adults that top-down modulation of early visual processing (< 200 ms from stimulus onset) is intimately related to subsequent WM performance, such that the likelihood of successfully remembering relevant information is associated with limiting interference from irrelevant stimuli. The consequences of a failure to ignore distractors on recognition performance was replicated for two types of feature-based memory, motion direction and color. Moreover, attention to irrelevant stimuli was reflected neurally during the WM maintenance period as an increased memory load. These results suggest that neural enhancement of relevant information is not the primary determinant of high-level performance, but rather, optimal WM performance is dependent on effectively filtering irrelevant information through neural suppression to prevent overloading a limited memory capacity.
PMCID: PMC2704557  PMID: 19279242
working memory; selective attention; top-down modulation; EEG; vision; behavioral performance
5.  Alpha power increases in right parietal cortex reflects focused internal attention 
Neuropsychologia  2014;56(100):393-400.
This study investigated the functional significance of EEG alpha power increases, a finding that is consistently observed in various memory tasks and specifically during divergent thinking. It was previously shown that alpha power is increased when tasks are performed in mind—e.g., when bottom-up processing is prevented. This study aimed to examine the effect of task-immanent differences in bottom-up processing demands by comparing two divergent thinking tasks, one intrinsically relying on bottom-up processing (sensory-intake task) and one that is not (sensory-independence task). In both tasks, stimuli were masked in half of the trials to establish conditions of higher and lower internal processing demands. In line with the hypotheses, internal processing affected performance and led to increases in alpha power only in the sensory-intake task, whereas the sensory-independence task showed high levels of task-related alpha power in both conditions. Interestingly, conditions involving focused internal attention showed a clear lateralization with higher alpha power in parietal regions of the right hemisphere. Considering evidence from fMRI studies, right-parietal alpha power increases may correspond to a deactivation of the right temporoparietal junction, reflecting an inhibition of the ventral attention network. Inhibition of this region is thought to prevent reorienting to irrelevant stimulation during goal-driven, top-down behavior, which may serve the executive function of task shielding during demanding cognitive tasks such as idea generation and mental imagery.
•This study investigated the functional significance of EEG alpha activity.•Right-parietal alpha power increased as a function of internal attention demands.•Alpha power increases during divergent thinking indicates focused attention.•Right-parietal alpha may reflect activity of the ventral attention network.
PMCID: PMC3989020  PMID: 24561034
Attention; Memory; Inhibition; EEG; Alpha; Divergent thinking
6.  The Role of Stimulus Salience and Attentional Capture Across the Neural Hierarchy in a Stop-Signal Task 
PLoS ONE  2011;6(10):e26386.
Inhibitory motor control is a core function of cognitive control. Evidence from diverse experimental approaches has linked this function to a mostly right-lateralized network of cortical and subcortical areas, wherein a signal from the frontal cortex to the basal ganglia is believed to trigger motor-response cancellation. Recently, however, it has been recognized that in the context of typical motor-control paradigms those processes related to actual response inhibition and those related to the attentional processing of the relevant stimuli are highly interrelated and thus difficult to distinguish. Here, we used fMRI and a modified Stop-signal task to specifically examine the role of perceptual and attentional processes triggered by the different stimuli in such tasks, thus seeking to further distinguish other cognitive processes that may precede or otherwise accompany the implementation of response inhibition. In order to establish which brain areas respond to sensory stimulation differences by rare Stop-stimuli, as well as to the associated attentional capture that these may trigger irrespective of their task-relevance, we compared brain activity evoked by Stop-trials to that evoked by Go-trials in task blocks where Stop-stimuli were to be ignored. In addition, region-of-interest analyses comparing the responses to these task-irrelevant Stop-trials, with those to typical relevant Stop-trials, identified separable activity profiles as a function of the task-relevance of the Stop-signal. While occipital areas were mostly blind to the task-relevance of Stop-stimuli, activity in temporo-parietal areas dissociated between task-irrelevant and task-relevant ones. Activity profiles in frontal areas, in turn, were activated mainly by task-relevant Stop-trials, presumably reflecting a combination of triggered top-down attentional influences and inhibitory motor-control processes.
PMCID: PMC3195690  PMID: 22022611
7.  Signal Enhancement and Suppression During Visual-Spatial Selective Attention 
Brain research  2010;1359:155-177.
Selective attention involves the relative enhancement of relevant versus irrelevant stimuli. However, whether this relative enhancement involves primarily enhancement of attended stimuli, or suppression of irrelevant stimuli, remains controversial. Moreover, if both enhancement and suppression are involved, whether they result from a single mechanism or separate mechanisms during attentional control or selection is not known. In two experiments using a spatial cuing paradigm with task-relevant targets and irrelevant distractors, target and distracter processing was examined as a function of distractor expectancy. Additionally, in the second study the interaction of perceptual load and distractor expectancy was explored. In both experiments, distractors were either validly cued (70%) or invalidly cued (30%) in order to examine the effects of distractor expectancy on attentional control as well as target and distractor processing. The effects of distractor expectancy were assessed using event-related potentials recorded during the cue-to-target period (preparatory attention) and in response to the task-relevant target stimuli (selective stimulus processing). Analyses of distractor-present displays (anticipated versus unanticipated), showed modulations in brain activity during both the preparatory period and during target processing. The pattern of brain responses suggest both facilitation of attended targets and suppression of unattended distractors. These findings provide evidence for a two-process model of visual spatial selective attention, where one mechanism (facilitation) influences relevant stimuli and another (suppression) acts to filter distracting stimuli.
PMCID: PMC2955768  PMID: 20807513
Selective Attention; Event Related Potential; Inhibition; Vision
8.  The effect of non-visual working memory load on top-down modulation of visual processing 
Neuropsychologia  2009;47(7):1637-1646.
While a core function of the working memory (WM) system is the active maintenance of behaviorally relevant sensory representations, it is also critical that distracting stimuli are appropriately ignored. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging to examine the role of domain-general WM resources in the top-down attentional modulation of task-relevant and irrelevant visual representations. In our dual-task paradigm, each trial began with the auditory presentation of six random (high load) or sequentially-ordered (low load) digits. Next, two relevant visual stimuli (e.g., faces), presented amongst two temporally interspersed visual distractors (e.g., scenes), were to be encoded and maintained across a 7-sec delay interval, after which memory for the relevant images and digits was probed. When taxed by high load digit maintenance, participants exhibited impaired performance on the visual WM task and a selective failure to attenuate the neural processing of task-irrelevant scene stimuli. The over-processing of distractor scenes under high load was indexed by elevated encoding activity in a scene-selective region-of-interest relative to low load and passive viewing control conditions, as well as by improved long-term recognition memory for these items. In contrast, the load manipulation did not affect participants' ability to upregulate activity in this region when scenes were task-relevant. These results highlight the critical role of domain-general WM resources in the goal-directed regulation of distractor processing. Moreover, the consequences of increased WM load in young adults closely resemble the effects of cognitive aging on distractor filtering [Gazzaley et al., (2005) Nature Neuroscience 8, 1298-1300], suggesting the possibility of a common underlying mechanism.
PMCID: PMC2701233  PMID: 19397858
selective attention; distraction; suppression; filtering; dual task; fMRI
9.  The role of trauma-related distractors on neural systems for working memory and emotion processing in posttraumatic stress disorder 
Journal of psychiatric research  2008;43(8):809-817.
The relevance of emotional stimuli to threat and survival confers a privileged role in their processing. In PTSD, the ability of trauma-related information to divert attention is especially pronounced. Information unrelated to the trauma may also be highly distracting when it shares perceptual features with trauma material. Our goal was to study how trauma-related environmental cues modulate working memory networks in PTSD. We examined neural activity in participants performing a visual working memory task while distracted by task-irrelevant trauma and non-trauma material. Recent post-9/11 veterans were divided into a PTSD group (n = 22) and a trauma-exposed control group (n = 20) based on the Davidson trauma scale. Using fMRI, we measured hemodynamic change in response to emotional (trauma-related) and neutral distraction presented during the active maintenance period of a delayed-response working memory task. The goal was to examine differences in functional networks associated with working memory (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and lateral parietal cortex) and emotion processing (amygdala, ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, and fusiform gyrus). The PTSD group showed markedly different neural activity compared to the trauma-exposed control group in response to task-irrelevant visual distractors. Enhanced activity in ventral emotion processing regions was associated with trauma distractors in the PTSD group, whereas activity in brain regions associated with working memory and attention regions was disrupted by distractor stimuli independent of trauma content. Neural evidence for the impact of distraction on working memory is consistent with PTSD symptoms of hypervigilance and general distractibility during goal-directed cognitive processing.
PMCID: PMC2684984  PMID: 19091328
PTSD; fMRI; Working memory; Emotion processing; Cognitive control
10.  Preparatory Effects of Distractor Suppression: Evidence from Visual Cortex 
PLoS ONE  2011;6(12):e27700.
Spatial selective attention is the mechanism that facilitates the selection of relevant information over irrelevant information in the visual field. The current study investigated whether foreknowledge of the presence or absence of distractors surrounding an impending target stimulus results in preparatory changes in visual cortex. We cued the location of the target and the presence or absence of distractors surrounding the target while changes in blood oxygen level dependent (BOLD) signals were measured. In line with prior work, we found that top-down spatial attention resulted in an increased contralateral BOLD response, evoked by the cue throughout early visual cortex (areas V1, V2 and V3). In addition, cues indicating distractor presence evoked a substantial increase in the magnitude of the BOLD signal in visual area V3, but not in V2 or V1. This study shows that prior knowledge concerning the presence of a distractor results in enhanced attentional modulation of visual cortex, in visual areas where neuronal receptive fields are large enough to encompass both targets and distractors. We interpret these findings as evidence that top-down attentional control processes include active preparatory suppression mechanisms for irrelevant, distracting information in the visual scene.
PMCID: PMC3229494  PMID: 22164213
11.  Working Memory Load Modulates Distractor Competition in Primary Visual Cortex 
Cerebral Cortex (New York, NY)  2010;21(3):659-665.
When stimuli compete for sensory processing and response selection, coherent goal-guided behavior requires cognitive control so that task-relevant “targets” rather than irrelevant distractors are selected. It has been shown that reduced cognitive control under high working memory load increases distractor competition for selection. It remains unknown, though, whether cognitive control by working memory has an effect on the earliest levels of sensory processing in primary visual cortex. The present study addressed this question by having subjects perform a selective attention task involving classification of meaningful target objects while also ignoring congruent and incongruent distractor images. The level of cognitive control over distractor competition was varied through a concurrent working memory task of either low (1 digit) or high (6 digits) load. Functional magnetic resonance imaging revealed greater distractor competition effects not only on behavior but also on the sensory correlates in primary visual cortex (areas V1–V2) in conditions of high (vs. low) working memory load. In addition, high working memory load resulted in increased congruency-related functional connectivity between anterior cingulate cortex and V1. These results are the first to establish the neural correlates of distractor competition effects in primary visual cortex and the critical role of working memory in their cognitive control.
PMCID: PMC3041013  PMID: 20699229
attention; cognitive control; fMRI; response competition; working memory
12.  Occipital Alpha Activity during Stimulus Processing Gates the Information Flow to Object-Selective Cortex 
PLoS Biology  2014;12(10):e1001965.
A simultaneous EEG-fMRI study demonstrates that alpha-band activity in early visual cortex is associated with gating visual information to downstream regions, boosting attended information and suppressing distraction.
Given the limited processing capabilities of the sensory system, it is essential that attended information is gated to downstream areas, whereas unattended information is blocked. While it has been proposed that alpha band (8–13 Hz) activity serves to route information to downstream regions by inhibiting neuronal processing in task-irrelevant regions, this hypothesis remains untested. Here we investigate how neuronal oscillations detected by electroencephalography in visual areas during working memory encoding serve to gate information reflected in the simultaneously recorded blood-oxygenation-level-dependent (BOLD) signals recorded by functional magnetic resonance imaging in downstream ventral regions. We used a paradigm in which 16 participants were presented with faces and landscapes in the right and left hemifields; one hemifield was attended and the other unattended. We observed that decreased alpha power contralateral to the attended object predicted the BOLD signal representing the attended object in ventral object-selective regions. Furthermore, increased alpha power ipsilateral to the attended object predicted a decrease in the BOLD signal representing the unattended object. We also found that the BOLD signal in the dorsal attention network inversely correlated with visual alpha power. This is the first demonstration, to our knowledge, that oscillations in the alpha band are implicated in the gating of information from the visual cortex to the ventral stream, as reflected in the representationally specific BOLD signal. This link of sensory alpha to downstream activity provides a neurophysiological substrate for the mechanism of selective attention during stimulus processing, which not only boosts the attended information but also suppresses distraction. Although previous studies have shown a relation between the BOLD signal from the dorsal attention network and the alpha band at rest, we demonstrate such a relation during a visuospatial task, indicating that the dorsal attention network exercises top-down control of visual alpha activity.
Author Summary
In complex environments, our sensory systems are bombarded with information. Only a fraction of this information is processed, whereas most is ignored. As such, our brain must rely on powerful mechanisms to filter the relevant information. It has been proposed that alpha band oscillations (8–13 Hz) gate task-relevant visual information to downstream areas and supress irrelevant visual information. We tested this hypothesis in a study that combined electroencephalography (EEG) and functional MRI (fMRI) recordings. From the EEG, we directly measured alpha band oscillations in early visual regions. Using fMRI, we quantified neuronal activity in downstream regions. The participants performed a spatial working memory task that required them to encode pictures of objects presented in the left field of view while ignoring objects in the right field (or vice versa). We found that suppression of alpha band activity in visual areas opened the gate for relevant visual information to be routed to downstream regions. Conversely, an increase in alpha oscillations suppressed visual information that was irrelevant to the task. These findings suggest that alpha band oscillations are directly involved in boosting attended information and suppressing distraction in the ventral visual stream.
PMCID: PMC4205112  PMID: 25333286
13.  The impact of distractor congruency on stimulus processing in retinotopic visual cortex☆ 
Neuroimage  2013;81(100):158-163.
The brain is frequently confronted with sensory information that elicits conflicting response choices. While much research has addressed the top down control mechanisms associated with detection and resolution of response competition, the effects of response competition on sensory processing in the primary visual cortex remain unclear. To address this question we modified a typical ‘flanker task’ (Eriksen and Eriksen, 1974) so that the effects of response competition on human early retinotopic visual cortex could be assessed. Healthy human participants were scanned using fMRI while making a speeded choice response that classified a target object image into one of two categories (e.g. fruits, animals). An irrelevant distractor image that was either congruent (same image as target), incongruent (image from opposite category as target), or neutral (image from task-irrelevant category, e.g. household items) was also present on each trial, but in a different quadrant of the visual field relative to the target. Retinotopic V1 areas responding to the target stimuli showed increased response to targets in the presence of response-incongruent (compared to response-neutral) distractors. A negative correlation with behavioral response competition effects indicated that an increased primary visual cortical response to targets in the incongruent (vs. neutral) trials is associated with a reduced response competition effect on behavior. These results suggest a novel conflict resolution mechanism in the primary visual cortex.
•fMRI was used to examine effects of distractor congruency on retinotopic cortex.•V1 showed increased response to targets in the presence of incongruent distractors.•V1 effect was negatively correlated with distractor congruency effect on behavior.•A mechanism for conflict resolution involving primary visual cortex is proposed.
PMCID: PMC3734350  PMID: 23648965
fMRI; Attention; Response competition; Flanker; V1; Retinotopic cortex
14.  Temporal-Spatial Neural Activation Patterns Linked to Perceptual Encoding of Emotional Salience 
PLoS ONE  2014;9(4):e93753.
It is well known that we continuously filter incoming sensory information, selectively allocating attention to what is important while suppressing distracting or irrelevant information. Yet questions remain about spatiotemporal patterns of neural processes underlying attentional biases toward emotionally significant aspects of the world. One index of affectively biased attention is an emotional variant of an attentional blink (AB) paradigm, which reveals enhanced perceptual encoding for emotionally salient over neutral stimuli under conditions of limited executive attention. The present study took advantage of the high spatial and temporal resolution of magnetoencephalography (MEG) to investigate neural activation related to emotional and neutral targets in an AB task. MEG data were collected while participants performed a rapid stimulus visual presentation task in which two target stimuli were embedded in a stream of distractor words. The first target (T1) was a number and the second (T2) either an emotionally salient or neutral word. Behavioural results replicated previous findings of greater accuracy for emotionally salient than neutral T2 words. MEG source analyses showed that activation in orbitofrontal cortex, characterized by greater power in the theta and alpha bands, and dorsolateral prefrontal activation were associated with successful perceptual encoding of emotionally salient relative to neutral words. These effects were observed between 250 and 550 ms, latencies associated with discrimination of perceived from unperceived stimuli. These data suggest that important nodes of both emotional salience and frontoparietal executive systems are associated with the emotional modulation of the attentional blink.
PMCID: PMC3984101  PMID: 24727751
15.  Multisensory conflict modulates the spread of visual attention across a multisensory object 
NeuroImage  2010;52(2):606-616.
Spatial attention to a visual stimulus that occurs synchronously with a task-irrelevant sound from a different location can lead to increased activity not only in visual cortex, but also auditory cortex, apparently reflecting the object-related spreading of attention across both space and modality (Busse et al., 2005). The processing of stimulus conflict, including multisensory stimulus conflict, is known to activate the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), but the interactive influence on the sensory cortices remains relatively unexamined. Here we used fMRI to examine whether the multisensory spread of visual attention across the sensory cortices previously observed will be modulated by whether there is conceptual or object-related conflict between the relevant visual and irrelevant auditory inputs. Subjects visually attended to one of two lateralized visual letter streams while synchronously occurring, task-irrelevant, letter sounds were presented centrally, which could be either congruent or incongruent with the visual letters. We observed significant enhancements for incongruent versus congruent letter-sound combinations in the ACC and in the contralateral visual cortex when the visual component was attended, presumably reflecting the conflict detection and the need for boosted attention to the visual stimulus during incongruent trials. In the auditory cortices, activity increased bilaterally if the spatially discordant auditory stimulation was incongruent, but only in the left, language-dominant side when congruent. We conclude that a conflicting incongruent sound, even when task-irrelevant, distracts more strongly than a congruent one, leading to greater capture of attention. This greater capture of attention in turn results in increased activity in the auditory cortex.
PMCID: PMC2912282  PMID: 20420924
16.  PTSD symptom severity is associated with increased recruitment of top-down attentional control in a trauma-exposed sample☆ 
NeuroImage : Clinical  2014;7:19-27.
Recent neuroimaging work suggests that increased amygdala responses to emotional stimuli and dysfunction within regions mediating top down attentional control (dorsomedial frontal, lateral frontal and parietal cortices) may be associated with the emergence of anxiety disorders, including posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This report examines amygdala responsiveness to emotional stimuli and the recruitment of top down attention systems as a function of task demands in a population of U.S. military service members who had recently returned from combat deployment in Afghanistan/Iraq. Given current interest in dimensional aspects of pathophysiology, it is worthwhile examining patients who, while not meeting full PTSD criteria, show clinically significant functional impairment.
Fifty-seven participants with sub-threshold levels of PTSD symptoms completed the affective Stroop task while undergoing fMRI. Participants with PTSD or depression at baseline were excluded.
Greater PTSD symptom severity scores were associated with increased amygdala activation to emotional, particularly positive, stimuli relative to neutral stimuli. Furthermore, greater PTSD symptom severity was associated with increased superior/middle frontal cortex response during task conditions relative to passive viewing conditions. In addition, greater PTSD symptom severity scores were associated with: (i) increased activation in the dorsolateral prefrontal, lateral frontal, inferior parietal cortices and dorsomedial frontal cortex/dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dmFC/dACC) in response to emotional relative to neutral stimuli; and (ii) increased functional connectivity during emotional trials, particularly positive trials, relative to neutral trials between the right amygdala and dmFC/dACC, left caudate/anterior insula cortex, right lentiform nucleus/caudate, bilateral inferior parietal cortex and left middle temporal cortex.
We suggest that these data may reflect two phenomena associated with increased PTSD symptomatology in combat-exposed, but PTSD negative, armed services members. First, these data indicate increased emotional responsiveness by: (i) the positive relationship between PTSD symptom severity and amygdala responsiveness to emotional relative to neutral stimuli; (ii) greater BOLD response as a function of PTSD symptom severity in regions implicated in emotion (striatum) and representation (occipital and temporal cortices) during emotional relative to neutral conditions; and (iii) increased connectivity between the amygdala and regions implicated in emotion (insula/caudate) and representation (middle temporal cortex) as a function of PTSD symptom severity during emotional relative to neutral trials. Second, these data indicate a greater need for the recruitment of regions implicated in top down attention as indicated by (i) greater BOLD response in superior/middle frontal gyrus as a function of PTSD symptom severity in task relative to view conditions; (ii) greater BOLD response in dmFC/dACC, lateral frontal and inferior parietal cortices as a function of PTSD symptom severity in emotional relative to neutral conditions and (iii) greater functional connectivity between the amygdala and inferior parietal cortex as a function of PTSD symptom severity during emotional relative to neutral conditions.
•Greater PTSD symptoms associated with increased amygdala activation to emotional stimuli•PTSD symptoms associated with greater top down attention response in task and emotion conditions•PTSD symptoms were associated with slower reaction times.•Increased top down attention recruitment may compensate for heightened emotional responses.
PMCID: PMC4299952  PMID: 25610763
Post-traumatic stress disorder; Emotion attention; Amygdala; Top down attention
17.  Oscillatory alpha-band mechanisms and the deployment of spatial attention to anticipated auditory and visual target locations: Supramodal or sensory-specific control mechanisms? 
The Journal of Neuroscience  2011;31(27):9923-9932.
Oscillatory alpha-band activity (8–15 Hz) over parieto-occipital cortex in humans plays an important role in suppression of processing for inputs at to-be-ignored regions of space, with increased alpha-band power observed over cortex contralateral to locations expected to contain distractors. It is unclear if similar processes operate during deployment of spatial attention in other sensory modalities. Evidence from lesion patients suggests that parietal regions house supramodal representations of space. The parietal lobes are prominent generators of alpha-oscillations; raising the possibility that alpha is a neural signature of supramodal spatial attention. Further, when spatial attention is deployed within vision, processing of task-irrelevant auditory inputs at attended locations is also enhanced, pointing to automatic links between spatial deployments across senses. Here, we asked whether lateralized alpha-band activity is also evident in a purely auditory spatial-cueing task, and whether it had the same underlying generator configuration as in a purely visuo-spatial task. If common to both sensory-systems, this would provide strong support for “supramodal” attention theory. Alternately, alpha-band differences between auditory and visual tasks would support a sensory-specific account. Lateralized shifts in alpha-band activity were indeed observed during a purely auditory-spatial task. Crucially, there were clear differences in scalp topographies of this alpha-activity depending on the sensory system within which spatial attention was deployed. Findings suggest that parietally-generated alpha-band mechanisms are central to attentional deployments across modalities but that they are invoked in a sensory-specific manner. The data support an interactivity account, whereby a supramodal system interacts with sensory-specific control systems during deployment of spatial attention.
PMCID: PMC3343376  PMID: 21734284
Supramodal Spatial Attention; attention; crossmodal attention; parietal lobe; space; multisensory; Oscillations; Suppression; EEG; Biasing; Cueing
18.  Deficient prefrontal attentional control in late-life generalized anxiety disorder: an fMRI investigation 
Translational Psychiatry  2011;1(10):e46-.
Younger adults with anxiety disorders are known to show an attentional bias toward negative information. Little is known regarding the role of biased attention in anxious older adults, and even less is known about the neural substrates of any such bias. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to assess the mechanisms of attentional bias in late life by contrasting predictions of a top-down model emphasizing deficient prefrontal cortex (PFC) control and a bottom-up model emphasizing amygdalar hyperreactivity. In all, 16 older generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) patients (mean age=66 years) and 12 non-anxious controls (NACs; mean age=67 years) completed the emotional Stroop task to assess selective attention to negative words. Task-related fMRI data were concurrently acquired. Consistent with hypotheses, GAD participants were slower to identify the color of negative words relative to neutral, whereas NACs showed the opposite bias, responding more quickly to negative words. During negative words (in comparison with neutral), the NAC group showed PFC activations, coupled with deactivation of task-irrelevant emotional processing regions such as the amygdala and hippocampus. By contrast, GAD participants showed PFC decreases during negative words and no differences in amygdalar activity across word types. Across all participants, greater attentional bias toward negative words was correlated with decreased PFC recruitment. A significant positive correlation between attentional bias and amygdala activation was also present, but this relationship was mediated by PFC activity. These results are consistent with reduced prefrontal attentional control in late-life GAD. Strategies to enhance top-down attentional control may be particularly relevant in late-life GAD treatment.
PMCID: PMC3309492  PMID: 22833192
aging; anxiety; attentional bias; attention; FMRI; prefrontal cortex
19.  Reward and Attentional Control in Visual Search 
It has long been known that the control of attention in visual search depends both on voluntary, top-down deployment according to context-specific goals, and on involuntary, stimulus-driven capture based on the physical conspicuity of perceptual objects. Recent evidence suggests that pairing target stimuli with reward can modulate the voluntary deployment of attention, but there is little evidence that reward modulates the involuntary deployment of attention to task-irrelevant distractors. We report several experiments that investigate the role of reward learning on attentional control. Each experiment involved a training phase and a test phase. In the training phase, different colors were associated with different amounts of monetary reward. In the test phase, color was not task-relevant and participants searched for a shape singleton; in most experiments no reward was delivered in the test phase. We first show that attentional capture by physically salient distractors is magnified by a previous association with reward. In subsequent experiments we demonstrate that physically inconspicuous stimuli previously associated with reward capture attention persistently during extinction—even several days after training. Furthermore, vulnerability to attentional capture by high-value stimuli is negatively correlated across individuals with working memory capacity and positively correlated with trait impulsivity. An analysis of intertrial effects reveals that value-driven attentional capture is spatially specific. Finally, when reward is delivered at test contingent on the task-relevant shape feature, recent reward history modulates value-driven attentional capture by the irrelevant color feature. The influence of learned value on attention may provide a useful model of clinical syndromes characterized by similar failures of cognitive control, including addiction, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and obesity.
PMCID: PMC4323078  PMID: 23437631
Attentional capture; Reward; Incentive salience; Visual search
20.  Developmental changes in category-specific brain responses to numbers and letters in a working memory task 
NeuroImage  2008;44(4):1404-1414.
Neuroimaging studies have identified a common network of brain regions involving the prefrontal and parietal cortices across a variety of working memory (WM) tasks. However, previous studies have also reported category-specific dissociations of activation within this network. In this study, we investigated the development of category-specific activation in a WM task with digits, letters, and faces. Eight-year-old children and adults performed a 2-back WM task while their brain activity was measured using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Overall, children were significantly slower and less accurate than adults on all three WM conditions (digits, letters, and faces); however, within each age group, behavioral performance across the three conditions was very similar. FMRI results revealed category-specific activation in adults but not children in the intraparietal sulcus for the digit condition. Likewise, during the letter condition, category-specific activation was observed in adults but not children in the left occipital–temporal cortex. In contrast, children and adults showed highly similar brain-activity patterns in the lateral fusiform gyri when solving the 2-back WM task with face stimuli. Our results suggest that 8-year-old children do not yet engage the typical brain regions that have been associated with abstract or semantic processing of numerical symbols and letters when these processes are task-irrelevant and the primary task is demanding. Nevertheless, brain activity in letter-responsive areas predicted children’s spelling performance underscoring the relationship between abstract processing of letters and linguistic abilities. Lastly, behavioral performance on the WM task was predictive of math and language abilities highlighting the connection between WM and other cognitive abilities in development.
PMCID: PMC2659412  PMID: 19027079
21.  Attentional and Linguistic Interactions in Speech Perception 
NeuroImage  2007;39(3):1444-1456.
The role of attention in speech comprehension is not well understood. We used fMRI to study the neural correlates of auditory word, pseudoword, and nonspeech (spectrally-rotated speech) perception during a bimodal (auditory, visual) selective attention task. In three conditions, Attend Auditory (ignore visual), Ignore Auditory (attend visual), and Visual (no auditory stimulation), 28 subjects performed a one-back matching task in the assigned attended modality. The visual task, attending to rapidly presented Japanese characters, was designed to be highly demanding in order to prevent attention to the simultaneously presented auditory stimuli. Regardless of stimulus type, attention to the auditory channel enhanced activation by the auditory stimuli (Attend Auditory > Ignore Auditory) in bilateral posterior superior temporal regions and left inferior frontal cortex. Across attentional conditions, there were main effects of speech processing (word + pseudoword > rotated speech) in left orbitofrontal cortex and several posterior right hemisphere regions, though these areas also showed strong interactions with attention (larger speech effects in the Attend Auditory than in the Ignore Auditory condition) and no significant speech effects in the Ignore Auditory condition. Several other regions, including the postcentral gyri, left supramarginal gyrus, and temporal lobes bilaterally, showed similar interactions due to the presence of speech effects only in the Attend Auditory condition. Main effects of lexicality (word > pseudoword) were isolated to a small region of the left lateral prefrontal cortex. Examination of this region showed significant word > pseudoword activation only in the Attend Auditory condition. Several other brain regions, including left ventromedial frontal lobe, left dorsal prefrontal cortex, and left middle temporal gyrus, showed attention × lexicality interactions due to the presence of lexical activation only in the Attend Auditory condition. These results support a model in which neutral speech presented in an unattended sensory channel undergoes relatively little processing beyond the early perceptual level. Specifically, processing of phonetic and lexical-semantic information appears to be very limited in such circumstances, consistent with prior behavioral studies.
PMCID: PMC2268216  PMID: 17996463
22.  Accurate expectancies diminish perceptual distraction during visual search 
The load theory of visual attention proposes that efficient selective perceptual processing of task-relevant information during search is determined automatically by the perceptual demands of the display. If the perceptual demands required to process task-relevant information are not enough to consume all available capacity, then the remaining capacity automatically and exhaustively “spills-over” to task-irrelevant information. The spill-over of perceptual processing capacity increases the likelihood that task-irrelevant information will impair performance. In two visual search experiments, we tested the automaticity of the allocation of perceptual processing resources by measuring the extent to which the processing of task-irrelevant distracting stimuli was modulated by both perceptual load and top-down expectations using behavior, functional magnetic resonance imaging, and electrophysiology. Expectations were generated using a trial-by-trial cue that provided information about the likely load of the upcoming visual search task. When the cues were valid, behavioral interference was eliminated and the influence of load on frontoparietal and visual cortical responses was attenuated relative to when the cues were invalid. In conditions in which task-irrelevant information interfered with performance and modulated visual activity, individual differences in mean blood oxygenation level dependent responses measured from the left intraparietal sulcus were negatively correlated with individual differences in the severity of distraction. These results are consistent with the interpretation that a top-down biasing mechanism interacts with perceptual load to support filtering of task-irrelevant information.
PMCID: PMC4034704  PMID: 24904374
selective attention; distraction; dorsal attention network; visual cortex
23.  The impact of processing load on emotion 
NeuroImage  2006;34(3):1299-1309.
This event-related fMRI study examined the impact of processing load on the BOLD response to emotional expressions. Participants were presented with composite stimuli consisting of neutral and fearful faces upon which semi-transparent words were superimposed. This manipulation held stimulus-driven features constant across multiple levels of processing load. Participants made either: (1) gender discriminations based on the face; (2) case judgments based on the words; or (3) syllable number judgments based on the words. A significant main effect for processing load was revealed in prefrontal cortex, parietal cortex, visual processing areas, and amygdala. Critically, enhanced activity in the amygdala and medial prefrontal cortex seen during gender discriminations was significantly reduced during the linguistic task conditions. A connectivity analysis conducted to investigate theories of cognitive modulation of emotion showed that activity in dorsolateral prefrontal cortex was inversely related to activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Together, the data suggest that the processing of task-irrelevant emotional information, like neutral information, is subject to the effects of processing load and is under top-down control.
PMCID: PMC1909754  PMID: 17161627
24.  Momentary reductions of attention permit greater processing of irrelevant stimuli 
NeuroImage  2009;48(3):609-615.
Momentary reductions of attention can have extremely adverse outcomes, but it remains unclear whether increased distraction from irrelevant stimuli contributes to such outcomes. To investigate this hypothesis, we examined trial-by-trial relationships between brain activity and response time in twenty healthy adults while they performed a cross-modal selective attention task. In each trial, participants identified a relevant visual letter while ignoring an irrelevant auditory letter, which was mapped either to the same response as the visual letter (congruent trials) or to a different response (incongruent trials). As predicted, reductions of attention (i.e., increases of response time) were associated not only with decreased activity in sensory regions that processed the relevant visual stimuli, suggesting a failure to enhance the processing of those stimuli, but also with increased activity in sensory regions that processed the irrelevant auditory stimuli, suggesting a failure to suppress the processing of those stimuli. Reductions of attention were also linked to larger increases of activity in incongruent than in congruent trials in anterior cingulate regions that detect response conflict, suggesting that failing to suppress the sensory processing of the irrelevant auditory stimuli during attentional reductions allowed those stimuli to more readily activate conflicting responses in incongruent trials. These findings indicate that heightened levels of distraction during momentary reductions of attention likely stem, at least in part, from increased processing of irrelevant stimuli.
PMCID: PMC2738758  PMID: 19596451
attention; auditory; visual; response conflict; fMRI; cognitive
25.  Modulations of the executive control network by stimulus onset asynchrony in a Stroop task 
BMC Neuroscience  2013;14:79.
Manipulating task difficulty is a useful way of elucidating the functional recruitment of the brain’s executive control network. In a Stroop task, pre-exposing the irrelevant word using varying stimulus onset asynchronies (‘negative’ SOAs) modulates the amount of behavioural interference and facilitation, suggesting disparate mechanisms of cognitive processing in each SOA. The current study employed a Stroop task with three SOAs (−400, -200, 0 ms), using functional magnetic resonance imaging to investigate for the first time the neural effects of SOA manipulation. Of specific interest were 1) how SOA affects the neural representation of interference and facilitation; 2) response priming effects in negative SOAs; and 3) attentional effects of blocked SOA presentation.
The results revealed three regions of the executive control network that were sensitive to SOA during Stroop interference; the 0 ms SOA elicited the greatest activation of these areas but experienced relatively smaller behavioural interference, suggesting that the enhanced recruitment led to more efficient conflict processing. Response priming effects were localized to the right inferior frontal gyrus, which is consistent with the idea that this region performed response inhibition in incongruent conditions to overcome the incorrectly-primed response, as well as more general action updating and response preparation. Finally, the right superior parietal lobe was sensitive to blocked SOA presentation and was most active for the 0 ms SOA, suggesting that this region is involved in attentional control.
SOA exerted both trial-specific and block-wide effects on executive processing, providing a unique paradigm for functional investigations of the cognitive control network.
PMCID: PMC3734141  PMID: 23902451
fMRI; Stroop task; Stimulus onset asynchrony; Cognitive control

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