Dorsal Attention Network How It Affects Mental Health

woman looking at computer

By Rishi Sood, MD

When you’re in a meeting, focusing on what your supervisor is saying or concentrating on a work project, there’s a specific part of your brain that’s especially active, helping you pay attention. This brain system is known as the dorsal attention network (DAN).

The DAN plays a crucial role in how you focus your attention on various tasks throughout the day, from studying to playing sports. When this brain network is functioning optimally, it helps you concentrate.

When the DAN is not working as well as it should, it can make it harder for you to stay focused. It can also make you more vulnerable to certain mental health disorders.

When the dorsal attention network is functioning optimally, it helps you concentrate. When it’s not working as well as it should, it can make it harder for you to stay focused. Click To Tweet


The dorsal attention network is a group of brain areas located primarily in the top and front parts of the human brain. Research shows that brain regions involved in the DAN include:

  • Intraparietal sulcus
  • Frontal eye fields

This network is like the director of a movie, deciding where the camera should focus. In the same way, the DAN helps you focus your “mental camera” on the right subjects, ignoring distractions that might throw you off course.

Studies show that the DAN is also involved in visual and verbal working memory tasks. Working memory is when you temporarily hold information in your mind while manipulating it. Think of it like a sticky note inside your brain.

For example, I was recently at a psychiatry conference where I saw a fascinating presentation. As I watched the lecture, I had a question about something the presenter said. So, I basically put that question on a sticky note in my brain and then when I met the presenter later that day, I retrieved the sticky note and asked my question.


Think of the DAN as your brain’s control panel for attention. When you need to concentrate, the DAN lights up, helping you zero in on what’s important at that moment.

It controls what you pay attention to by increasing your brain’s sensitivity to certain stimuli, like a teacher’s voice, and reducing sensitivity to others, like the chatter from classmates.

Experts refer to this as top-down attention, where your brain chooses what to focus on. Your brain intentionally directs your attention to something that matters to you based on your goals and expectations.

This differs from bottom-up attention, where your brain shifts its focus due to unexpected external changes, such as a loud noise or a bird flying right in front of your face.


The way the dorsal attention network functions is vital for your ability to focus, but it also plays a significant role in your mental health. Here’s how:

  • Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): In people with ADHD, also known as attention-deficit disorder (ADD), the DAN might not function as effectively. This can make it hard to stay focused on tasks, leading to difficulties in school and while doing homework.

In adults with ADHD, difficulty with focus can impact every aspect of life—at work, at home, and in relationships. Scientists are increasingly suggesting that exploring the connectivity of the DAN with other brain networks may be important in gaining a better understanding of ADHD.

  • Anxiety disorders: When you’re anxious, the DAN might become overly reactive to non-threatening stimuli, making you feel overwhelmed by everyday situations. This can distract you from important tasks and increase feelings of stress.
  • Depression: Those experiencing clinical depression may find that their DAN doesn’t activate as strongly as it should. This can lead to problems with concentration and maintaining attention on tasks or activities that used to be enjoyable.

Exciting new brain-imaging research published in 2023 in the Journal of Affective Disorders suggests that decreases in the DAN could potentially be a biomarker for major depressive disorder.

  • Schizophrenia: Emerging findings from a 2023 brain-imaging study indicate that activity in the dorsal attention network is different in people with schizophrenia. This distinct activity occurs during visual perception organization and may be related to the cognitive disorganization seen in this mental health disorder.


Understanding the role of the dorsal attention network can help us find better ways to support our mental health. Here are some strategies that can strengthen this network:

  • Mindfulness and meditation: Engaging in mindfulness exercises or meditation can help train the DAN to be more effective. These practices teach you to focus your attention deliberately, which can improve how well the DAN functions.
  • Regular exercise: Physical activities, especially those that require concentration like team sports or martial arts, can enhance the functioning of the DAN. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, which helps keep your neural networks healthy.
  • Adequate sleep: Sleep is essential for brain health. A good night’s sleep helps reset brain networks, including the dorsal attention network, making it more effective during the day.
  • Balanced nutrition: Eating a diet rich in nutrients supports overall brain health, which is crucial for the proper functioning of the DAN. Eating foods that are high in omega-3 fatty acids, like fish and nuts, are particularly beneficial. You may also want to consider taking omega-3 nutritional supplements.

By taking care of your dorsal attention network through healthy habits and understanding its function, you can improve your focus and attention. This not only helps with work projects or schoolwork but also supports your mental health, making daily tasks more manageable and enjoyable.

Anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.

Dr. Rishi Sood is Associate Medical Director of Amen Clinics Inc. and a child and adult psychiatrist.

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