What Is a Continuous Performance Task?

Steven Symes

A continuous performance task is a set of tests created to measure a person’s neurological functions. The tests focus specifically on a person’s sustained attention, as well as on the person’s selective attention and impulsivity. Patients must process a variety of information, as well as provide responses to various questions provided during the tests. The ultimate end of continuous performance tests is to measure a patient’s executive functioning, or the ability to sort through and make sense of different degrees and types of information.

A set of tasks based on continuous performance can help diagnose whether a child has attention deficit disorder (ADD).
A set of tasks based on continuous performance can help diagnose whether a child has attention deficit disorder (ADD).

Applications of continuous performance tasks vary, helping neurologists test for the possible presence of a variety of neurological conditions in patients. Commonly, tests can help confirm if a patient has attention deficit disorder. Different test formats have been created for children, juveniles and adult patients, since each age group has different information comprehension and processing abilities.

Measuring the patient’s sustained attention involves the patient focusing consistently on a singular task for long periods of time. A patient’s selective attention and impulsivity can be measured by observing him focusing on specific stimuli while ignoring competing or distracting stimuli. Most continuous performance task tests incorporate testing for both sustained and selective attention abilities, giving a clearer picture of the neurological capabilities and limits of a patient.

Several factors might be measured by different varieties of continuous performance task tests. Some tests are designed with high-load and low-load sections. These tests measure how many mistakes of commission a patient makes during the high-load sections, and how many mistakes of omission a patient makes during low-load sections of the test.

Different conditions might affect how a patient fares with different types of continuous performance task. Fatigue will negatively affect the outcome of a test or series of tests, and so a neurologist will prescribe that all tests are given at the same or similar time of day to avoid variations in the scores of different tests that are a result of fatigue. Administered properly, the tests should produce the same results no matter how many times a patient takes them.

A variety of continuous performance task tests exist, each with its own focus and method of measuring a patient’s neurological abilities. Some common tests include the Conners’ Continuous Performance Task II, the Integrated Visual and Auditory Test and the Test of Variables of Attention. Depending on the neurologist’s assessment of a patient, he might choose to have the patient submit to one, two or several tests as a way of determining the type and extent of any neurological disorders.

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