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Original Research ARTICLE Provisionally accepted The full-text will be published soon. Notify me

Front. Hum. Neurosci. | doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2019.00286

Brain activity associated with expected task difficulty

 Miek J. De Dreu1*,  Irena Schouwenaars1, Geert-Jan Rutten1,  Nick F. Ramsey2 and Johan M. Jansma1
  • 1Department of Neurosurgery, Elisabeth-TweeSteden Hospital, Netherlands
  • 2Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery, University Medical Center Utrecht, Netherlands

Previous research shows that people are able to use a cue to mentally prepare for a cognitive challenge. The response to a cue has been defined as phasic alertness which is reflected in faster responses and increased activity in frontal, parietal, thalamic, and visual brain regions. We examine if and how phasic alertness can be tuned to the expected difficulty of an upcoming challenge. If people in general are able to tune their level of alertness, than an inability to tune may be linked to disease.
Twenty-two healthy volunteers performed a cued visual perception task with two levels of task difficulty. Performance and brain activity were compared between these two levels.
Performance was lower for difficult stimuli than for easy stimuli. Participants showed activation in a network associated with central executive function and deactivation in regions of the default mode network, and visual cortex for both cue types. Deactivation was significantly stronger for cues signaling difficult stimuli than for cues signaling easy stimuli. This effect was most prominent in medial prefrontal gyrus, visual, and temporal cortices. Activation did not differ between the cues.
Our study shows that phasic alertness is represented by activated as well as deactivated brain regions. However only deactivated brain regions tuned their level of activity to the expected task difficulty. These results suggest that people in general are able to tune their level of alertness to an upcoming task. Cognition may be facilitated by a brain-state coupled to expectations about an upcoming cognitive challenge. Unique identifier = 842003004 .

Keywords: cue, task difficulty, Brain activity, mental preparation, default mode network (DMN), Alertness and Attention, Cognition, fMRI — functional magnetic resonance imaging

Received: 26 Apr 2019; Accepted: 05 Aug 2019.

Edited by:

Tamer Demiralp, Istanbul University, Turkey

Reviewed by:

Mark E. Wheeler, Georgia Institute of Technology, United States
Afra Wohlschlaeger, Technical University of Munich, Germany  

Copyright: © 2019 De Dreu, Schouwenaars, Rutten, Ramsey and Jansma. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

* Correspondence: Ms. Miek J. De Dreu, Department of Neurosurgery, Elisabeth-TweeSteden Hospital, Tilburg, Netherlands,