Dissociation between top-down attentional control and the time course of visual attention as measured by attentional dwell time in patients with mild cognitive impairment


: Professor John R. Hodges, MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, as 2above.
E-mail: john.hodges@mrc-cbu.cam.ac.uk


Studies of the time course of visual attention have identified a temporary functional blindness to the second of sequentially presented stimuli in that the attentional cost of attending to one visual stimulus may lead to impairments in identifying a second stimulus presented within 500 ms of the first. This phenomenon is known as the attentional blink or attentional dwell time. The neural correlates of the attentional blink and its relationship to mechanisms that control attention are unknown. To examine this relationship we tested healthy controls and subjects in the preclinical stage of Alzheimer's disease, known as mild cognitive impairment (MCI), on a paradigm which affords quantification of both the attentional blink and the top-down control of attention. When subjects were asked to identify both a number and a letter that were rapidly and sequentially presented on a visual display, the detrimental effect that identifying the first stimulus had on the ability to identify the second served as a measure of the attentional blink. When asked to identify only one of the two stimuli, the ability to ignore the first stimulus was a function of their top-down attentional control. The MCI subjects demonstrated a normal attentional dwell time but in contrast they showed impaired top-down attentional control within the same paradigm. This dissociation suggests that these two aspects of visual attention are subserved by different neural systems. The possible neural correlates of these two attentional functions are discussed.