Open Access Highly Accessed Open Badges Research article

The impact of task relevance and degree of distraction on stimulus processing

Stefanie C Biehl12*, Ann-Christine Ehlis3, Laura D Müller1, Andrea Niklaus15, Paul Pauli4 and Martin J Herrmann1

Author affiliations

1 Department of Psychiatry, Psychosomatics and Psychotherapy, University of Würzburg, Füchsleinstraβe 15, 97080 Würzburg, Germany

2 School of Psychology, University of Aberdeen, William Guild Building, Aberdeen AB24 3FX, UK

3 Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, University of Tuebingen, Osianderstraβe 24, 72076 Tuebingen, Germany

4 Department of Psychology I, University of Würzburg, Marcusstraβe 9-11, 97070 Würzburg, Germany

5 Department of Human Genetics, University of Würzburg, Am Hubland, 97074 Würzburg, Germany

For all author emails, please log on.

Citation and License

BMC Neuroscience 2013, 14:107  doi:10.1186/1471-2202-14-107

Published: 1 October 2013



The impact of task relevance on event-related potential amplitudes of early visual processing was previously demonstrated. Study designs, however, differ greatly, not allowing simultaneous investigation of how both degree of distraction and task relevance influence processing variations. In our study, we combined different features of previous tasks. We used a modified 1-back task in which task relevant and task irrelevant stimuli were alternately presented. The task irrelevant stimuli could be from the same or from a different category as the task relevant stimuli, thereby producing high and low distracting task irrelevant stimuli. In addition, the paradigm comprised a passive viewing condition. Thus, our paradigm enabled us to compare the processing of task relevant stimuli, task irrelevant stimuli with differing degrees of distraction, and passively viewed stimuli. EEG data from twenty participants was collected and mean P100 and N170 amplitudes were analyzed. Furthermore, a potential connection of stimulus processing and symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) was investigated.


Our results show a modulation of peak N170 amplitudes by task relevance. N170 amplitudes to task relevant stimuli were significantly higher than to high distracting task irrelevant or passively viewed stimuli. In addition, amplitudes to low distracting task irrelevant stimuli were significantly higher than to high distracting stimuli. N170 amplitudes to passively viewed stimuli were not significantly different from either kind of task irrelevant stimuli. Participants with more symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity showed decreased N170 amplitudes across all task conditions. On a behavioral level, lower N170 enhancement efficiency was significantly correlated with false alarm responses.


Our results point to a processing enhancement of task relevant stimuli. Unlike P100 amplitudes, N170 amplitudes were strongly influenced by enhancement and enhancement efficiency seemed to have direct behavioral consequences. These findings have potential implications for models of clinical disorders affecting selective attention, especially ADHD.

Selective attention; Working memory; Cognitive control; P100; N170; ADHD