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The physiological basis of attentional modulation in extrastriate visual areas


Selective attention to color or motion enhances activity in specialized areas of extrastriate cortex, but mechanisms of attentional modulation remain unclear. By dissociating modulation of visually evoked transient activity from the baseline for a particular attentional set, human functional neuroimaging was used to investigate the physiological basis of such effects. Baseline activity in motion- and color-sensitive areas of extrastriate cortex was enhanced by selective attention to these attributes, even without moving or colored stimuli. Further, visually evoked responses increased along with baseline activity. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that attention modulates sensitivity of neuronal populations to inputs by changing background activity.

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Figure 1: SPM(Z) (threshold, p < 0.01, uncorrected) showing the main effect of the stimulus versus baseline over subjects, masked with the main effect from each individual subject (that is, a conjunction of significant effects over all three subjects) and rendered on a structural MRI scan.
Figure 2: Activity and responses in V5 as a function of attention in all subjects.
Figure 3: Activity and responses in V4 as a function of attention in all subjects.

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We thank the radiographers at the Wellcome Department of Cognitive Neurology for their help. This work was supported by the Wellcome Trust.

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Correspondence to D. Chawla.

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Chawla, D., Rees, G. & Friston, K. The physiological basis of attentional modulation in extrastriate visual areas. Nat Neurosci 2, 671–676 (1999).

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