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The neural bases of momentary lapses in attention


Momentary lapses in attention frequently impair goal-directed behavior, sometimes with serious consequences. Nevertheless, we lack an integrated view of the brain mechanisms underlying such lapses. By investigating trial-by-trial relationships between brain activity and response time in humans, we determined that attentional lapses begin with reduced prestimulus activity in anterior cingulate and right prefrontal regions involved in controlling attention. Less efficient stimulus processing during attentional lapses was also characterized by less deactivation of a 'default-mode' network, reduced stimulus-evoked sensory activity, and increased activity in widespread regions of frontal and parietal cortex. Finally, consistent with a mechanism for recovering from attentional lapses, increased stimulus-evoked activity in the right inferior frontal gyrus and the right temporal-parietal junction predicted better performance on the next trial. Our findings provide a new, system-wide understanding of the patterns of brain activity that are associated with brief attentional lapses, which informs both theoretical and clinical models of goal-directed behavior.

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Figure 1: Experimental stimuli used in the global and local tasks.
Figure 2: Relatively small amounts of prestimulus activity in frontal control regions predict relatively slow response times.
Figure 3: Smaller deactivations in the default-mode network are associated with longer response times.
Figure 4: Relationships between longer response times and target-related activity in fronto-parietal and sensory cortices.
Figure 5: Greater current-trial activity in the ventral fronto-parietal network predicts faster response time in the next trial.


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This research was supported by a postdoctoral National Research Service Award to D.H.W. (1 F32 NS41867-01) and by US National Institute of Health grants to M.G.W. (MH60415 and P01 NS41328, Project 2).

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Correspondence to D H Weissman.

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Weissman, D., Roberts, K., Visscher, K. et al. The neural bases of momentary lapses in attention. Nat Neurosci 9, 971–978 (2006).

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