Neural Mechanisms of Sustained Attention Are Rhythmic

Randolph F. Helfrich, Ian C. Fiebelkorn, Sara M. Szczepanski, Jack J. Lin, Josef Parvizi, Robert T. Knight, Sabine Kastner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

239 Scopus citations


Classic models of attention suggest that sustained neural firing constitutes a neural correlate of sustained attention. However, recent evidence indicates that behavioral performance fluctuates over time, exhibiting temporal dynamics that closely resemble the spectral features of ongoing, oscillatory brain activity. Therefore, it has been proposed that periodic neuronal excitability fluctuations might shape attentional allocation and overt behavior. However, empirical evidence to support this notion is sparse. Here, we address this issue by examining data from large-scale subdural recordings, using two different attention tasks that track perceptual ability at high temporal resolution. Our results reveal that perceptual outcome varies as a function of the theta phase even in states of sustained spatial attention. These effects were robust at the single-subject level, suggesting that rhythmic perceptual sampling is an inherent property of the frontoparietal attention network. Collectively, these findings support the notion that the functional architecture of top-down attention is intrinsically rhythmic. Helfrich et al. demonstrate that the neural basis of sustained attention is rhythmic. Using human intracranial recordings, they show that attentional allocation and overt behavior are modulated by a ∼4 Hz theta rhythm that predicts endogenous excitability fluctuations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)854-865.e5
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 22 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Neuroscience


  • discrete perception
  • electrocorticography
  • frontoparietal attention network
  • functional network parcellation
  • high-frequency activity
  • intracranial EEG
  • perceptual cycles
  • phase-dependent behavior
  • rhythmic attention
  • theta oscillations


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