Brain connectivity and visual attention.

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Emerging hypotheses suggest that efficient cognitive functioning requires the integration of separate, but interconnected cortical networks in the brain. Although task-related measures of brain activity suggest that a frontoparietal network is associated with the control of attention, little is known regarding how components within this distributed network act together or with other networks to achieve various attentional functions. This review considers both functional and structural studies of brain connectivity, as complemented by behavioral and task-related neuroimaging data. These studies show converging results: The frontal and parietal cortical regions are active together, over time, and identifiable frontoparietal networks are active in relation to specific task demands. However, the spontaneous, low-frequency fluctuations of brain activity that occur in the resting state, without specific task demands, also exhibit patterns of connectivity that closely resemble the task-related, frontoparietal attention networks. Both task-related and resting-state networks exhibit consistent relations to behavioral measures of attention. Further, anatomical structure, particularly white matter pathways as defined by diffusion tensor imaging, places constraints on intrinsic functional connectivity. Lastly, connectivity analyses applied to investigate cognitive differences across individuals in both healthy and diseased states suggest that disconnection of attentional networks is linked to deficits in cognitive functioning, and in extreme cases, to disorders of attention. Thus, comprehensive theories of visual attention and their clinical translation depend on the continued integration of behavioral, task-related neuroimaging, and brain connectivity measures.





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Parks, Emily L, and David J Madden (2013). Brain connectivity and visual attention. Brain connectivity, 3(4). pp. 317–338. 10.1089/brain.2012.0139 Retrieved from

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Emily L Parks

Lecturing Fellow of Thompson Writing Program

David Joseph Madden

Professor in Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences

My research focuses primarily on the cognitive neuroscience of aging: the investigation of age-related changes in perception, attention, and memory, using both behavioral measures and neuroimaging techniques, including positron emission tomography (PET), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), and diffusion tensor imaging (DTI).

The behavioral measures have focused on reaction time, with the goal of distinguishing age-related changes in specific cognitive abilities from more general effects arising from a slowing in elementary perceptual processes. The cognitive abilities of interest include selective attention as measured in visual search tasks, semantic and episodic memory retrieval, and executive control processes.

The behavioral measures are necessary to define the cognitive abilities of interest, and the neuroimaging techniques help define the functional neuroanatomy of those abilities. The PET and fMRI measures provide information regarding neural activity during cognitive performance. DTI is a recently developed technique that images the structural integrity of white matter. The white matter tracts of the brain provide critical pathways linking the gray matter regions, and thus this work will complement the studies using PET and fMRI that focus on gray matter activation.

A current focus of the research program is the functional connectivity among regions, not only during cognitive task performance but also during rest. These latter measures, referred to as intrinsic functional connectivity, are beginning to show promise as an index of overall brain functional efficiency, which can be assessed without the implementation of a specific cognitive task. From DTI, information can be obtained regarding how anatomical connectivity constrains intrinsic functional connectivity. It will be important to determine the relative influence of white matter pathway integrity, intrinsic functional connectivity, and task-related functional connectivity, as mediators of age-related differences in behavioral measures of cognitive performance.

Ultimately, the research program can help link age-related changes in cognitive performance to changes in the structure and function of specific neural systems. The results also have implications for clinical translation, in terms of the identification of neural biomarkers for the diagnosis of neural pathology and targeting rehabilitation procedures.

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