Twenty healthy young adults underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of the brain while performing a visual inspection time task. Inspection time is a forced-choice, two-alternative visual backward-masking task in which the subject is briefly shown two parallel vertical lines of markedly different lengths and must decide which is longer. As stimulus duration decreases, performance declines to chance levels. Individual differences in inspection time correlate with higher cognitive functions. An event-related design was used. The hemodynamic (blood oxygenation level-dependent; BOLD) response was computed as both a function of the eight levels of stimulus duration, from 6 ins (where performance is almost at chance) to 150 ms (where performance is nearly perfect), and a function of the behavioral responses. Random effects analysis showed that the difficulty of the visual discrimination was related to bilateral activation in the inferior fronto-opercular cortex, superior/medial frontal gyros, and anterior cingulate gyrus, and bilateral deactivation in the posterior cingulate gyrus and precuneus. Examination of the time courses of BOLD responses showed that activation was related specifically to the more difficult briefer stimuli and that deactivation was found across most stimulus levels. Functional connectivity suggested the existence of two networks. One comprised the fronto-opercular area, intrasylvian area, medial frontal gyrus, and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), possibly associated with processing of visually degraded percepts. A posterior network of sensory-related and associative regions might subserve processing of a visual discrimination task that has high processing demands and combines several fundamental cognitive domains. fMRI can thus reveal information about the neural correlates of mental events which occur over very short durations. (C) 2004 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.