Acute visual neglect and extinction: Distinct functional state of the visuospatial attention system
The neural mechanisms underlying spatial neglect are still disputed. Abnormal left parietal hyperactivation is proposed to lead to the rightward attentional bias, a clinical hallmark of neglect. Extinction, another deficit of visuospatial attention, is regarded as either a 'mild' form of neglect or a distinct syndrome. Although both neglect and extinction are typical syndromes of acute right hemispheric stroke, all imaging studies investigating these syndromes were conducted at least several weeks after stroke onset, in a phase when brain reorganization has already progressed. The present study aimed at comparing the activation patterns in acute stroke patients with neglect and extinction during visuospatial processing. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we examined the functional state of the attention system in 33 patients with a first ever stroke (53 ± 5 h after stroke onset) and age-matched healthy subjects (n = 15). All patients had embolic infarcts within the territory of the right middle cerebral artery. Patients were divided into three groups: (i) normal visuospatial processing (control patients, n = 11); (ii) patients with visual extinction but with no signs of neglect (n = 9); and (iii) patients with visual neglect (n = 13). While undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging, patients performed a Posner-like task for visuospatial attention with detection of the targets in the left and right visual hemifields. Patients with neglect showed the expected imbalance in the left versus right parietal activation, which however, was present also in control and extinction patients, thus representing an epiphenomenon of the acute structural lesion in the right hemisphere. Compared with control patients, neglect was characterized by reduced activation in the right parietal and lateral occipital cortex, as well as in the left frontal eye field. In contrast, the activation pattern in patients with extinction differed from all other groups by an increased activation of the left prefrontal cortex. In both patients with neglect and extinction, detection of targets in the left hemifield correlated with an activation in the left prefrontal and parietal cortex. Thus at least in acute stroke, a relative hyperactivation of the left parietal cortex is not a particular characteristic of neglect. The specific signature of neglect is represented by the dysfunction of the right parietal and lateral occipital cortex. The function of the left attentional centres might provide a compensatory role after critical right hemisphere lesions and be relevant for the contralesional spatial processing.
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