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Dag Alnæs, Markus Handal Sneve, Thomas Espeseth, Tor Endestad, Steven Harry Pieter van de Pavert, Bruno Laeng; Pupil size signals mental effort deployed during multiple object tracking and predicts brain activity in the dorsal attention network and the locus coeruleus. Journal of Vision 2014;14(4):1. doi: https://doi.org/10.1167/14.4.1.
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Attentional effort relates to the allocation of limited-capacity attentional resources to meet current task demands and involves the activation of top-down attentional systems in the brain. Pupillometry is a sensitive measure of this intensity aspect of top-down attentional control. Studies relate pupillary changes in response to cognitive processing to activity in the locus coeruleus (LC), which is the main hub of the brain's noradrenergic system and it is thought to modulate the operations of the brain's attentional systems. In the present study, participants performed a visual divided attention task known as multiple object tracking (MOT) while their pupil sizes were recorded by use of an infrared eye tracker and then were tested again with the same paradigm while brain activity was recorded using fMRI. We hypothesized that the individual pupil dilations, as an index of individual differences in mental effort, as originally proposed by Kahneman (1973), would be a better predictor of LC activity than the number of tracked objects during MOT. The current results support our hypothesis, since we observed pupil-related activity in the LC. Moreover, the changes in the pupil correlated with activity in the superior colliculus and the right thalamus, as well as cortical activity in the dorsal attention network, which previous studies have shown to be strongly activated during visual tracking of multiple targets. Follow-up pupillometric analyses of the MOT task in the same individuals also revealed that individual differences to cognitive load can be remarkably stable over a lag of several years. To our knowledge this is the first study using pupil dilations as an index of attentional effort in the MOT task and also relating these to functional changes in the brain that directly implicate the LC-NE system in the allocation of processing resources.
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