Phasic alerting of neglect patients overcomes their spatial deficit in visual awareness

Patients with extensive damage to the right hemisphere of their brain often exhibit unilateral neglect of the left side of space. The spatial attention of these patients is strongly biased towards the right, so their awareness of visual events on the left is impaired. Extensive right-hemisphere lesions also impair tonic alertness (the ability to maintain arousal). This nonspatial deficit in alertness is often considered to be a different problem from spatial neglect, but the two impairments may be linked. If so, then phasically increasing the patients' alertness should temporarily ameliorate their spatial bias in awareness. Here we provide evidence to support this theory. Right-hemisphere-neglect patients judged whether a visual event on the left preceded or followed a comparable event on the right. They became aware of left events half a second later than right events on average. This spatial imbalance in the time course of visual awareness was corrected when a warning sound alerted the patients phasically. Even a warning sound on the right accelerated the perception of left visual events in this way. Nonspatial phasic alerting can thus overcome disabling spatial biases in perceptual awareness after brain injury.