Spatial Attention and Executive Function

Attention is not a monolithic concept, but rather a constellation of smaller cognitive operations. A main goal of cognitive neuroscience has been to map those attentional components to their underlying brain structures, and to describe interactions and dissociations among different attentional processes. My own research has revealed that the processes of orienting, alertness and conflict resolution have different developmental and clinical trajectories, arguing for the existence of three distinct, albeit interactive, attentional networks.[1],[2]

The conflict resolution network implements the suppression of prepotent information, which is necessary for voluntary action and self-control. It remains unclear whether this inhibition depends on response modality (verbal, motor) and type of information (spatial, non-spatial), or instead there is an amodal brain area that resolves conflict. To address this question, I am testing prefrontal stroke patients in a spatial compatibility task (Simon task) and a verbal non-spatial task (Stroop task).[3] Preliminary results reveal a certain amount of domain specificity, in that only verbal conflict resolution is affected by left frontal lesions.

Another open question is the relation between conflict resolution and prefrontal functions such as working memory and set switching. I found that working memory modulates set switching but not conflict resolution, arguing for functional independence.[4] In a follow-up study, I tested how these three functions were affected by Alzheimer’s disease.[5] These descriptions provide not only a better understanding of what attention is in cognitive and neural terms, but can also guide treatment for attention problems due to brain insult or errors in developmental.[6]


[1]Fernandez-Duque, D., & Posner, M. I. (1997). Relating the mechanisms of orienting and alerting. Neuropsychologia, 35(4), 477-486.  

[2] Fernandez-Duque, D., & Black, S. E. (submitted). Attentional networks in normal aging and Alzheimer’s Disease.

[3] Fernandez-Duque, D., & Black, S. E. (2003). The Simon effect in stroke patients. Poster presented at the Cognitive Neuroscience Society annual convention, New York City.

[4] Fernandez-Duque, D. (in preparation). On the relations among conflict resolution, set switching, and working memory.

[5] Fernandez-Duque, D., Evans, M., & Black, S. E. (2001). Attention and set maintenance in normal aging and Alzheimer’s Disease. Poster presented at the annual convention of the Cognitive Science Association for Interdisciplinary Learning, Hood River, Oregon.

[6] Fernandez-Duque, D., & Posner, M. I. (2001). Brain imaging of attentional networks in normal and pathological states. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 23(1), 477-486.