Diurnal patterns of activity of the orienting and executive attention neuronal networks in subjects performing a Stroop-like task: a functional magnetic resonance imaging study.
Attentional processes are fundamental to good cognitive functioning of human operators. The purpose of this study was to analyze the activity of neuronal networks involved in the orienting attention and executive control processes from the perspective of diurnal variability. Twenty-three healthy male volunteers meeting magnetic resonance (MR) inclusion criteria performed the Stroop Color-Word task (block design) in the MR scanner five times/day (06:00, 10:00, 14:00, 18:00, 22:00 h). The first scanning session was scheduled 1-1.5 h after waking. Between MR sessions, subjects performed simulated driving tasks in stable environmental conditions, with controlled physical activity and diet. Significant activation was found in brain regions related to the orienting attentional system: the parietal lobe (BA40) and frontal eye-fields (FEFs). There were also activations in areas of the executive control system: the fronto-insular cortex (FIC), dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC), presupplementary motor area (preSMA), supplementary motor area (SMA), basal ganglia, middle temporal (MT; BA21), and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), as a part of the central executive network. Significant deactivations were observed in the rostral anterior cingulate cortex (rACC), posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), superior frontal gyrus (SF), parietal lobe (BA39), and parahippocampal that are thought to comprise the default mode network (DMN). Additionally, the activated regions included bilaterally lingual gyrus and fusiform gyrus. The insula was bilaterally deactivated. Visual attention controlled by the goal-oriented attention system and comprising top-down and bottom-up mechanisms, activated by Stroop-like task, turned out to be prone to diurnal changes. The study results show the occurrence of time-of-day-related variations in neural activity of brain regions linked to the orienting attentional system (left parietal lobe-BA40, left and right FEFs), simultaneously providing arguments for temporal stability of the executive system and default mode network. These results also seem to suggest that the involuntary, exogenous (bottom-up) mechanism of attention is more vulnerable to circadian and fatigue factors than the voluntary (top-down) mechanism, which appear to be maintained at the same functional level during the day. The above phenomena were observed at the neural level.