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Brain activity in the prefrontal cortex during a cancellation task: effects of the target-to-distractor ratio


Cancellation tasks have been widely used to neurologically assess selective attention and visual search in various clinical and research settings. However, there is still a lack of evidence regarding the effect of the level of task difficulty on brain activity in the prefrontal cortex (PFC). This study implemented cancellation tasks to investigate the effects of varying task difficulty on oxygenated hemoglobin (oxy-Hb) concentrations. Data from 21 healthy adults were analyzed based on performance during three-block-design types of cancellation tasks with different T/D ratios (i.e., 1/9, 2/8, and 3/7). Performance was assessed via the number of correct responses, incorrect responses, hit ratios, achievement ratios, and performance scores (PS), while PFC activity was examined using near-infrared spectroscopy. Both the numbers of correct responses and PS were the lowest for the smallest T/D ratio. Similarly, we observed that the oxy-Hb concentration in the PFC was significantly increased during the task. Our results support the findings of previous studies that used conventional cancellation tasks, thus suggesting that block design types are suitable for examinations in the same contexts. Regarding the above-mentioned changes in the oxy-Hb concentration, the findings suggest that the PFC region is involved in selective attention.

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Availability of data and material

The datasets generated and analyzed during the current study can be made available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.

Code availability

Not applicable.


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The authors would like to thank Dr. Akira Yasumura, Graduate School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Kumamoto University, for his guidance in writing the treatise. This work was supported by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science KAKENHI Grant (JP21H00891), awarded to AY. We would like to thank Editage ( for English language editing.


No funding was received to assist with the preparation of this manuscript.

Author information




All authors contributed to the study's conception and design. KY and AY performed material preparation, data collection, and analysis. KY wrote the first draft of the manuscript, and all authors commented on previous versions of the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Koji Yano.

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The study protocol was approved by the Ethics Review Committee of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Kumamoto University (reception number: 45).

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Written informed consent was obtained from all participants.

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Written informed consent was obtained from all participants for the publication of this study.

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Yano, K., Yasumura, A. Brain activity in the prefrontal cortex during a cancellation task: effects of the target-to-distractor ratio. Exp Brain Res 239, 2851–2858 (2021).

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  • Selective attention
  • Visual search
  • Prefrontal cortex
  • Near-infrared spectroscopy
  • Cancellation task