Introduction

The Attention Network Test (ANT) is an experimental task used to study three attentional networks simultaneously: alerting, orienting, and executive control. The three attentional networks originally discussed in Posner’s Attention Network theory (Posner & Peterson, 1990), include:

  • Subcortical or Alerting System: The alerting system is the most primitive attention network in the human brain which is involved in an individual’s response to an alert or warning signal, such as danger.
  • Posterior or Orienting System: The orienting system involves an individual’s directional response (the location to which an individual should direct their attention) when exposed to sensory information (e.g., spatial cues).
  • Executive Control System: The executive control system is responsible for conflict resolution.

Note that the study of attention is a major part of cognitive psychology, with attentional network systems being the focus of cognitive neuroscience research for years. While various theoretical models have been established to explore the nature of attention (Posner, 1978; Eriksen and Eriksen, 1974), the understanding of the human brain keeps evolving.

The Attention Network Test is a computerized task implemented in the PEBL (Psychology Experiment Building Language) system. The test requires minimal instructions and reveals numerous benefits in research and practice. To set an example, the Attentional Network Test can enhance the understanding of attention-related disorders, attention-shifting performance, and brain circuits involved in attention.

Method

The Attention Network Test is an easy to perform computer-based task. Each participant is asked to record their responses by using two input keys on a keyboard.

When the test begins, participants are visually subjected to a row of five horizontal black lines, with arrowheads pointing either left or right. The target is a left or right facing arrowhead at the center. Note that the target is flanked on either side by a) congruent condition (two arrows in the same direction as the target); b) by incongruent condition (two arrows in the opposite direction of the target), or c) by neutral condition (two lines on each side of the target).

Participants have to identify the direction of the target (the central arrow) by pressing one of the two input keys they have, indicating either the left or right direction. Note that subjects are asked to focus on the fixation point during the entire task.

Applications

Attention Network Test to Compare Response Times in Children with Attention Deficit Disorder vs. Controls

Adolfsdottir et al. (2008) evaluated a characteristic pattern of deficits in children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD) against a sample of healthy children and children with other diagnoses. The sample consisted of a total of 157 participants; 45 children with AD/HD, 55 children with other diagnoses, and 57 healthy children. Participants performed a simplified version of the Attention Network Test. Instead of arrows, the test consisted of a fish. Depending on the direction the fish was facing, children were asked to press either the right or the left mouse button as fast as possible to feed the hungry fish. The results indicated that children with AD/HD had an inattentive response style and lower accuracy.

Attention Network Test to Measure Cognitive Function in Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Togo et al. (2013) explored the effect of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) on information processing and error rates of patients with CFS. The sample consisted of 41 participants with CFS and 29 healthy participants. Participants with CFS were further categorized into CFS patients with and without depression. All participants took the standard version of the Attention Network Test (Fan et al., 2002). Results indicated that CFS patients with depression had slower processing speeds than both CFS patients without depression and healthy participants. However, no difference was found between the two CFS groups in regard to error rates.

Attention Network Test to Examine the Efficiency of the Alerting, Orienting, and Executive Control Networks Involved in Attention Performance

Xiao et al. (2016) employed the Attention Network Test (Fan et al., 2005) to the correlation between attention performance and the global and regional efficiency of structural brain networks. The sample consisted of 65 healthy participants (29 males and 36 females). Results indicated a significant correlation between region-based network properties and attentional network systems. Moreover, the research team found a significant correlation between the executive control function and the global efficiency of the brain.

Data Analysis

The Attention Network Test measures the:

  • Response times
  • Error rates

The test has numerous applications in research and practice. Additionally, research reveals there are significant gender differences associated with orienting attentional networks. Liu and colleagues (2013) showed females had higher orienting scores than males (t = 2.172, P < 0.05), meaning they were faster in directing their attention to a cued location.

Interestingly, studies with monkeys linked each attentional network to specific neurotransmitters. Orienting, for instance, has been associated with acetylcholine (Fan et al., 2005).

COSMIN

The test reveals good psychometric properties.

Construct validity: Ishigami et al. (2016) examined the psychometric properties of the Attention Network Test-Interaction (ANT-I), a variant of the Attention Network Test, in healthy older adults. After performing ANOVA, the research team proved that each network score was significant and independent.

Criterion validity: Hierarchical linear regressions showed that both executive network scores and demographic information are strong predictors of performance of conflict resolution, verbal memory, and retrieval (p<0.05) (Ishigami et al., 2016).

Reliability: Split-half correlation analyses also showed that alerting, orienting, and executive networks are statistically reliable in the Attention Network Test-Interaction version of the task (Ishigami et al., 2016).

Strengths and Limitations

Strengths

The Attention Network Task is simple and easy to compute the computerized task. The original version of the test (Fan et al. (2002)) is easily modifiable for children, patients, and even animals. The Attention Network Test is unique because it simultaneously studies alerting, orienting and executive control, as well as the specific brain regions involved in attention.

Limitations

One of the limitations of the Attention Network Test is its hard applicability to people with attention deficit disorders.

Summary & Key Points

  • Attention Network Test is an experimental task used to simultaneously study three attentional networks; alerting, orienting and executive control.
  • It is a computer-based tool, integrated into the PEBL system, which is easy to understand and perform.
  • The test has vast applications and benefits. It can be utilized to study children with attention deficit disorders, as well as patients with brain injuries.
  • The Attention Network Test is used to measure attentional networks efficiency and their correlation with specific brain networks and neurotransmitters.
  • The Attention Network Test is a valuable instrument to study attention and cognitive functioning.

References

  1. Adolfsdottir, S., Sorensen, L., & Lundervold, A. J. (2008). The attention network test: a characteristic pattern of deficits in children with ADHD. Behavioral and Brain Functions, 4(1).
  2. Eriksen, B. A., & Eriksen, C. W. (1974). Effects of noise letters upon the identification of a target letter in a nonsearch task. Perception & Psychophysics, 16(1), p. 143-149.
  3. Fan, J., Mccandliss, B. D., Fossella, J., Flombaum, J., & Posner, M. (2005). The activation of attentional networks. NeuroImage, 26(2), p. 471-479.
  4. Fan, J., McCandliss, B. D., Sommer, T., Raz, A., & Posner, M. I. (2002). Testing the Efficiency and Independence of Attentional Networks. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 14(3), p. 340-347.
  5. Ishigami, Y., Eskes, G., Tyndall, A., Longman, R., Drogos, L., & Poulin, M. (2016). The Attention Network Test-Interaction (ANT-I): reliability and validity in healthy older adults. Experimental Brain Research, 234.
  6. Liu, G., Hu, P., & Wang, K. (2013). Gender differences associated with orienting attentional networks in healthy subjects. Chinese Medical Journal, 126.
  7. Posner, M. I., & Petersen, S. E. (1990). The attention system of the human brain. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 13, p. 25-42.
  8. Togo, F., Lange, G., Natelson, B. H., & Quigley, K. S. (2013). Attention network test: Assessment of cognitive function in chronic fatigue syndrome. Journal of Neuropsychology, 9(1), p. 1-9.
  9. Xiao, M., Ge, H., Khundrakpam, B. S., Xu, J., Bezgin, G., Leng, Y., & Liu, S. (2016). Attention Performance Measured by Attention Network Test Is Correlated with Global and Regional Efficiency of Structural Brain Networks. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 10.