Human prefrontal and sensory cortical activity during divided attention tasks



In our natural environment, the ability to divide attention is essential since we attend simultaneously to a number of sensory modalities, e.g., to visual and auditory stimuli. In this study, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to study brain activation while a divided attention task was performed. Brain activation was also assessed under selective attention. Fourteen healthy male subjects aged between 19 and 28 years underwent fMRI studies using gradient EPI sequences. Cingulate activation was evident in all attention tasks. Focusing attention on one modality (visual or auditory) increased the activity in the corresponding primary and secondary sensory area. When attention is divided between both modalities, the activation in the sensory areas is decreased, possibly due to a limited capacity of the system for controlled processing. Left prefrontal activation, however, was evident selectively during the divided attention task. The present results suggest that this area may be important in the execution of controlled processing when attention is divided between two sources of information. These results support the view that the prefrontal cortex is involved in the central executive system and controls attention and information flow. Hum. Brain Mapping 18:249–259, 2003. © 2003 Wiley-Liss, Inc.