INTRODUCTION: The paced serial addition test (PSAT) is regularly used to assess cognitive deficits in various neuropsychiatric conditions. Being a complex test, it reflects the status of multiple cognitive domains such as working memory, information processing speed and executive functioning. Two versions of the PSAT exist. One uses auditory stimuli through spoken numbers and is known as the PASAT, while the other one presents patients with visual stimuli and is called PVSAT. The PASAT is considered more frustrating by patients, and hence the visual version is usually preferred. Research has suggested that an interference might exist between patients' verbal answers and the auditory presentation of stimuli. We therefore removed the verbal response in this study, and aimed to investigate differences in functional brain activity through functional magnetic resonance imaging.
METHODS: Fifteen healthy controls performed the two test versions inside an MRI scanner-switching between stimulus modality (auditory vs. visual) as well as inter-stimulus frequency (3s vs. 2s). We extracted 11 independent components from the data: attentional, visual, auditory, sensorimotor and default mode networks. We then performed statistical analyses of mean network activity within each component, as well as inter-network connectivity of each component pair during the different task types.
RESULTS: Unsurprisingly, we noted an effect of modality on activity in the visual and auditory components. However, we also describe bilateral frontoparietal, anterior cingulate and insular attentional network activity. An effect of frequency was noted only in the sensorimotor network. Effects were found on edges linking visual and auditory regions. Task modality influenced an attentional-sensorimotor connection, while stimulus frequency had an influence on sensorimotor-default mode connections.
CONCLUSIONS: Scanner noise during functional MRI may interfere with brain activation-especially during tasks involving auditory pathways. The question whether to use PVSAT or PASAT for an fMRI study is, therefore, an important one. Specific effects of both modalities should be known to study designers. We conclude that both tests should not be considered interchangeable, as significant changes were brought to light during test performance in different modalities.