Effects of attention on physiological responses in human visual cortex
Runeson, Erik Per
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Behavioral performance often suffers when attention is divided across multiple visual items. These results are supported by fMRI experiments showing reduced responses during divided attention, relative to focused attention, in primary visual cortex. However, a subset of behavioral research on divided attention suggests that the costs of dividing attention are dependent on task complexity and stimulus type. For example, costs are typically minimal when searching for a constant target that is defined by simple features such as orientation or contrast. Here we show fMRI evidence in humans that shows no cost of dividing attention in a task that incorporates simple search, on responses in primary visual cortex. Observers determined whether or not a vertically oriented low-contrast Gabor patch was present within one or four relevant locations. All four locations were always occupied by horizontally oriented Gabor pedestals, and the probability of a target being present was independent across trials and locations. Only the number of relevant locations varied across conditions. We found that the BOLD signal measured from human V1 was not reduced by divided attention when the task and stimuli are simple, suggesting that neural processing of simple features in primary visual cortex has unlimited capacity, corroborating a recent finding in monkeys (Chen and Seidemann, 2012). Multiple visual tasks can be performed on the same visual input, with different tasks presumably engaging different neuronal populations. The modular layout of the visual system implies that specific cortical regions carry more information about certain stimulus attributes than others. Thus, it is reasonable to assume that decisions during a task will be optimal if they are based on the responses of the most informative neuronal signals, which presumably originate in regions with the sharpest tuning for the relevant stimulus feature. Previous studies have supported this position. Here we present the results of two fMRI experiments that confirm these findings and expand on earlier investigations by addressing the effects of the physical properties of an attended stimulus on task-related modulations in human visual cortex. Specifically, we ask whether performing two-alternative forced choice speed- and color-discrimination tasks (and other attentional processes) can modulate neural activity independent of visual stimulation, and whether the effect of spatial attention depends on which task is being performed. The results indicate that, (1) when stimulation and spatial attention are constant, responses in V4 and MT+ depend on the task being performed, and are independent of the tested physical properties of the selected stimulus, (2) this task-dependent modulation might require a stimulus - task-specific preparatory mechanisms alone are not sufficient to drive responses, and (3) independent of which task is being performed, spatial attention adds a baseline shift to responses in MT+ and V4 when a stimulus is present.
- Psychology