It has been speculated that humans have an inherent ability to overcome sleepiness that counteracts homeostatic sleep pressure. However, it remains unclear which cortical substrate activities are involved in the ability to overcome sleepiness during the execution of cognitive tasks. Here we sought to confirm that this ability to overcome sleepiness in task execution improves performance on cognitive tasks, showing activation of neural substrates in the frontal cortex, by using a modified n-back (2- and 0-back) working memory task and functional near-infrared spectroscopy. The change in alertness was just correlated with performances on the 2-back task. Activity in the right prefrontal cortex changed depending on alertness changes on the 2- and 0-back tasks independently, which indicates that activity in this region clearly reflects the ability to overcome sleepiness; it may contribute to the function of providing sufficient activity to meet the task load demands. This study reveals characteristics of the ability to overcome sleepiness during the n-back working memory task which goes beyond the attention-control function traditionally proposed
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