The noradrenergic α2 agonist clonidine modulates behavioural and neuroanatomical correlates of human attentional orienting and alerting

  • Coull J
  • Nobre A
  • Frith C
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Abstract

We examined whether the known noradrenergic attenuation of the alerting effect (the beneficial effect of a warning cue) results from an underlying effect of noradrenaline on temporal orienting (orienting toward a particular moment in time). Following a within-subjects, counterbalanced design, 10 healthy human volunteers received placebo, 200 μg clonidine or 1 mg guanfacine (α2 agonists) in three separate testing sessions. Subjects were scanned by fMRI while performing attentional orienting tasks containing spatially informative, temporally informative, non-informative or no cues. The alerting effect primarily activated left-lateralized prefrontal, premotor and parietal regions. Clonidine, but not guanfacine, impaired behavioural measures of the alerting effect while attenuating actvity in the left temporo-parietal junction. Replicating previous results, the temporal orienting task activated left parietal and frontal cortex, while parietal cortex was activated bilaterally during spatial orienting. Of these networks, clonidine, but not guanfacine, attenuated left prefrontal cortex and insula activity during temporal orienting and attenuated right superior parietal cortex activity during spatial orienting,. To complement these neuroanatomical changes, clonidine produced selective behavioural effects on both temporal and spatial orienting. The anatomical dissociation between the effects of clonidine during temporal orienting versus alerting suggests that noradrenergic modulation of the alerting effect does not result only from an underlying effect on temporal orienting. Furthermore, we have demonstrated lateralized neuroanatomical substrates for the noradrenergic modulation of human attentional orienting in the spatial and temporal domains.

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