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Temporal dynamics of attention have been in the spotlight of research since the earliest days of cognitive psychology. Typically, researchers describe two different aspects of the temporal fluctuations of attention: one is in intervals of milliseconds (phasic alertness), and the other over minutes or even hours (tonic alertness or sustained attention). In order to evaluate individual capacities for sustained attention and phasic alertness, most studies rely on variations of the Continuous Performance Task (CPT). Indices of sustained attention and phasic alertness are typically based on reaction times to targets; phasic alertness is related to the change in reaction times following a cue, and sustained attention is related to variability of reaction times during the task. In the following study, we attempted to establish a new approach for studying sustained attention and phasic alertness, not reliant solely on reaction time measures. We developed a new variation of the CPT with conjunctive feature targets and forward and backward masking to induce a higher variability in accuracy. This allowed us to assess an individual's ability to maintain the same level of sensitivity to targets (d-prime) across a ten minute period on the task as an index for sustained attention. We also assessed reaction times as a function of previous trial type, and suggest previous trial RT benefit might be a marker for an individual's phasic alertness. We demonstrated the use of this task with healthy aging controls and stroke survivors. As a demonstration of external validity of the novel paradigm, we present a correlation between how individual performance drops over time and individual reports of distractibility in everyday life on the Cognitive Failures Questionnaire. In addition, we found significant differences between the patient and control groups in our proposed marker of phasic alertness. We discuss the implications of our study for current assessment tools, as well as general differences in phasic alertness between clinical and neurologically unimpaired groups.

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Ageing, CFQ, CPT, Cognitive Failure Questionnaire, Continuous Performance Task, Phasic alertness, Stroke, Sustained attention, Temporal attention, Tonic alertness