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Brain Res Cogn Brain Res. 2005 Dec;25(3):760-76. Epub 2005 Dec 5.

On the neural basis of focused and divided attention.

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1
Department of Neurology, University of Duisburg-Essen, Hufelandstr. 55, 45122 Essen, Germany. katharina.nebel@uni-essen.de

Abstract

Concepts of higher attention functions distinguish focused and divided attention. The present study investigated whether these mental abilities are mediated by common or distinct neural substrates. In a first experiment, 19 healthy subjects were examined with functional brain imaging (fMRI) while they attended to either one or both of two simultaneously presented visual information streams and responded to repetitive stimuli. This experiment resembled a typical examination of these mental functions with the single task demanding focused and the dual task conditions requiring divided attention. Both conditions activated a widespread, mainly right-sided network including dorso- and ventrolateral prefrontal structures, superior and inferior parietal cortex, and anterior cingulate gyrus. Under higher cognitive demands of divided attention, activity in these structures was enhanced and left-sided homologues were recruited. In a second experiment investigating another 17 subjects with almost the same paradigm, it was accounted for that in most dual task investigations of focused and divided attention the single tasks are easier to process than their combined presentation. Therefore, the task difficulty of focused attention tasks was increased. Almost the same activity pattern observed during division of attention was now found during focusing attention. Comparing both attentional states matched for task difficulty, differences were found in visual but not in prefrontal or parietal cortex areas. Our results suggest that focused and divided attention depend on largely overlapping neuronal substrates. Differences in activation patterns, especially in prefrontal and parietal areas, may result from unequal demands on executive control due to disparate processing requirements in typical tasks of focused and divided attention: Easier conditions begin with mainly right-sided activity within the attention network. As conditions become more difficult, left-lateralized homologue areas activate.

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