The effect of task relevance on the cortical response to changes in visual and auditory stimuli: an event-related fMRI study

J Downar, A P Crawley, D J Mikulis, K D Davis
NeuroImage 2001, 14 (6): 1256-67
Attention is, in part, a mechanism for identifying features of the sensory environment of potential relevance to behavior. The network of brain areas sensitive to the behavioral relevance of multimodal sensory events has not been fully characterized. We used event-related fMRI to identify brain regions responsive to changes in both visual and auditory stimuli when those changes were either behaviorally relevant or behaviorally irrelevant. A widespread network of "context-dependent" activations responded to both task-irrelevant and task-relevant events but responded more strongly to task-relevant events. The most extensive activations in this network were located in right and left temporoparietal junction (TPJ), with smaller activations in left precuneus, left anterior insula, left anterior cingulate cortex, and right thalamus. Another network of "context-independent" activations responded similarly to all events, regardless of task relevance. This network featured a large activation encompassing left supplementary and cingulate motor areas (SMA/CMA) as well as right IFG, right/left precuneus, and right anterior insula, with smaller activations in right/left inferior temporal gyrus and left posterior cingulate cortex. Distinct context-dependent and context-independent subregions of activation were also found within the left and right TPJ, left anterior insula, and left SMA/CMA. In the right TPJ, a subregion in the supramarginal gyrus showed sensitivity to the behavioral context (i.e., relevance) of stimulus changes, while two subregions in the superior temporal gyrus did not. The results indicate a role for the TPJ in detecting behaviorally relevant events in the sensory environment. The TPJ may serve to identify salient events in the sensory environment both within and independent of the current behavioral context.

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