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Attentional control: Temporal relationships within the fronto-parietal network

journal contribution
posted on 01.05.2012 by Sarah Shomstein, Dwight J. Kravitz, Marlene Behrmann

Selective attention to particular aspects of incoming sensory information is enabled by a network of neural areas that includes frontal cortex, posterior parietal cortex, and, in the visual domain, visual sensory regions. Although progress has been made in understanding the relative contribution of these different regions to the process of visual attentional selection, primarily through studies using neuroimaging, rather little is known about the temporal relationships between these disparate regions. To examine this, participants viewed two rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP) streams of letters positioned to the left and right of fixation point. Before each run, attention was directed to either the left or the right stream. Occasionally, a digit appeared within the attended stream indicating whether attention was to be maintained within the same stream (‘hold’ condition) or to be shifted to the previously ignored stream (‘shift’ condition). By titrating the temporal parameters of the time taken to shift attention for each participant using a fine-grained psychophysics paradigm, we measured event-related potentials time-locked to the initiation of spatial shifts of attention. The results revealed that shifts of attention were evident earlier in the response recorded over frontal than over parietal electrodes and, importantly, that the early activity over frontal electrodes was associated with a successful shift of attention. We conclude that frontal areas are engaged early for the purpose of executing an attentional shift, likely triggering a cascade through the fronto-parietal network ultimately, resulting in the attentional modulation of sensory events in posterior cortices.