BACKGROUND: In contrast to traditional views that consider smooth pursuit as a relatively automatic process, evidence has been reported for the importance of attention for accurate pursuit performance. However, the exact role that attention might play in the maintenance of pursuit remains unclear.
METHODOLOGY/PRINCIPAL FINDINGS: We analysed the neuronal activity associated with healthy subjects executing smooth pursuit eye movements (SPEM) during concurrent attentive tracking of a moving sound source, which was either in-phase or in antiphase to the executed eye movements. Assuming that attentional resources must be allocated to the moving sound source, the simultaneous execution of SPEM and auditory tracking in diverging directions should result in increased load on common attentional resources. By using an auditory stimulus as a distractor rather then a visual stimulus we guaranteed that cortical activity cannot be caused by conflicts between two simultaneous visual motion stimuli. Our results revealed that the smooth pursuit task with divided attention led to significantly higher activations bilaterally in the posterior parietal cortex and lateral and medial frontal cortex, presumably containing the parietal, frontal and supplementary eye fields respectively.
CONCLUSIONS: The additional cortical activation in these areas is apparently due to the process of dividing attention between the execution of SPEM and the covert tracking of the auditory target. On the other hand, even though attention had to be divided the attentional resources did not seem to be exhausted, since the identification of the direction of the auditory target and the quality of SPEM were unaffected by the congruence between visual and auditory motion stimuli. Finally, we found that this form of task-related attention modulated not only the cortical pursuit network in general but also affected modality specific and supramodal attention regions.