Sustained attention in traumatic brain injury (TBI) and healthy controls: enhanced sensitivity with dual-task load

Paul Dockree, Mark Andrew Bellgrove, Fiadhnait M O'Keeffe, Pauline Moloney, Lina Aimola, Simone Carton, Ian H. Robertson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review


Poor sustained attention or alertness is a common consequence of traumatic brain injury (TBI) and has a considerable impact on the recovery and adjustment of TBI patients. Here, we describe the development of a sensitive laboratory task in healthy subjects (Experiment 1) and its enhanced sensitivity to sustained attention errors in TBI patients (Experiment 2). The task involves withholding a key press to an infrequent no-go target embedded within a predictable sequence of numbers (primary goal) and detecting grey-coloured targets within the sequence (secondary goal). In Experiment 1, we report that neurologically healthy subjects are more likely to experience a lapse of attention and neglect the primary task goal, despite ceiling performance on the secondary task. Further, attentional lapses on the task correlated with everyday attentional failures and variability of response time. In Experiment 2, the task discriminates between TBI patients and controls with a large effect size. The dual-task yields more errors in both groups than a simple task involving only the primary goal that is commonly used to detect sustained attention deficits in neurologically impaired groups. TBI patients’ errors also correlated with everyday cognitive failures and variability of response time. This was not the case in the simple version of the task. We conclude that the dual-task demand associated with this task enhances its sensitivity as a measure of sustained attention in TBI patients and neurologically healthy controls that relates to everyday slips of attention.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)218-229
Number of pages12
JournalExperimental Brain Research
Issue number1-2
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2006
Externally publishedYes


  • Dual-task
  • Sustained attention
  • Traumatic Brain Injury
  • Prefrontal cortex

Cite this