A cortical network for directed attention and unilateral neglect

M. ‐Marchsel Mesulam*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1925 Scopus citations


Unilateral neglect reflects a disturbance in the spatial distribution of directed attention. A review of unilateral neglect syndromes in monkeys and humans suggests that four cerebral regions provide an integrated network for the modulation of directed attention within extrapersonal space. Each component region has a unique functional role that reflects its profile of anatomical connectivity, and each gives rise to a different clinical type of unilateral neglect when damaged. A posterior parietal component provides an internal sensory map and perhaps also a mechanism for modifying the extent of synaptic space devoted to specific portions of the external world; a limbic component in the cingulate gyrus regulates the spatial distribution of motivational valence; a frontal component coordinates the motor programs for exploration, scanning, reaching, and fixating; and a reticular component provides the underlying level of arousal and vigilance. This hypothetical network requires at least three complementary and interacting representations of extrapersonal space: a sensory representation in posterior parietal cortex, a schema for distributing exploratory movements in frontal cortex, and a motivational map in the cingulate cortex. Lesions in only one component of this network yield partial unilateral neglect syndromes, while those that encompass all the components result in profound deficits that transcend the mass effect of the larger lesion. This network approach to the localization of complex functions offers an alternative to more extreme approaches, some of which stress an exclusive concentration of function within individual centers in the brain and others which advocate a more uniform (equipotential or holistic) distribution. In human beings, unilateral neglect syndromes are more frequent and severe after lesions in the right hemisphere. Also, right hemisphere mechanisms appear more effective in the execution of attentional tasks. Furthermore, the attentional functions of the right hemisphere span both hemispaces, while the left hemisphere seems to contain the neural apparatus mostly for contralateral attention. This evidence indicates that the right hemisphere of dextrals has a functional specialization for the distribution of directed attention within extrapersonal space.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)309-325
Number of pages17
JournalAnnals of neurology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 1981

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neurology
  • Clinical Neurology


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