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Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience

January 2009, Vol. 21, No. 1, Pages 93-104
(doi: 10.1162/jocn.2009.21008)
© 2008 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Two Types of Action Error: Electrophysiological Evidence for Separable Inhibitory and Sustained Attention Neural Mechanisms Producing Error on Go/No-go Tasks
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Disentangling the component processes that contribute to human executive control is a key challenge for cognitive neuroscience. Here, we employ event-related potentials to provide electrophysiological evidence that action errors during a go/no-go task can result either from sustained attention failures or from failures of response inhibition, and that these two processes are temporally and physiologically dissociable, although the behavioral error—a nonintended response—is the same. Thirteen right-handed participants performed a version of a go/no-go task in which stimuli were presented in a fixed and predictable order, thus encouraging attentional drift, and a second version in which an identical set of stimuli was presented in a random order, thus placing greater emphasis on response inhibition. Electrocortical markers associated with goal maintenance (late positivity, alpha synchronization) distinguished correct and incorrect performance in the fixed condition, whereas errors in the random condition were linked to a diminished N2–P3 inhibitory complex. In addition, the amplitude of the error-related negativity did not differ between correct and incorrect responses in the fixed condition, consistent with the view that errors in this condition do not arise from a failure to resolve response competition. Our data provide an electrophysiological dissociation of sustained attention and response inhibition.