Revealing the Functional Neuroanatomy of Intrinsic Alertness Using fMRI: Methodological Peculiarities

B. Clemens, M. Zvyagintsev, A.T. Sack, A. Heinecke, K. Willmes, W. Sturm

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Clinical observations and neuroimaging data revealed a right-hemisphere fronto-parietal-thalamic-brainstem network for intrinsic alertness, and additional left fronto-parietal activity during phasic alertness. The primary objective of this fMRI study was to map the functional neuroanatomy of intrinsic alertness as precisely as possible in healthy participants, using a novel assessment paradigm already employed in clinical settings. Both the paradigm and the experimental design were optimized to specifically assess intrinsic alertness, while at the same time controlling for sensory-motor processing. The present results suggest that the processing of intrinsic alertness is accompanied by increased activity within the brainstem, thalamus, anterior cingulate gyrus, right insula, and right parietal cortex. Additionally, we found increased activation in the left hemisphere around the middle frontal gyrus (BA 9), the insula, the supplementary motor area, and the cerebellum. Our results further suggest that rather minute aspects of the experimental design may induce aspects of phasic alertness, which in turn might lead to additional brain activation in left-frontal areas not normally involved in intrinsic alertness. Accordingly, left BA 9 activation may be related to co-activation of the phasic alertness network due to the switch between rest and task conditions functioning as an external warning cue triggering the phasic alertness network. Furthermore, activation of the intrinsic alertness network during fixation blocks due to enhanced expectancy shortly before the switch to the task block might, when subtracted from the task block, lead to diminished activation in the typical right hemisphere intrinsic alertness network. Thus, we cautiously suggest that - as a methodological artifact - left frontal activations might show up due to phasic alertness involvement and intrinsic alertness activations might be weakened due to contrasting with fixation blocks, when assessing the functional neuroanatomy of intrinsic alertness with a block design in fMRI studies.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere25453
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2011

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