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Dynamic shifts of visual receptive fields in cortical area MT by spatial attention


Voluntary attention is the top-down selection process that focuses cortical processing resources on the most relevant sensory information. Spatial attention—that is, selection based on stimulus position—alters neuronal responsiveness throughout primate visual cortex. It has been hypothesized that it also changes receptive field profiles by shifting their centers toward attended locations and by shrinking them around attended stimuli. Here we examined, at high resolution, receptive fields in cortical area MT of rhesus macaque monkeys when their attention was directed to different locations within and outside these receptive fields. We found a shift of receptive fields, even far from the current location of attention, accompanied by a small amount of shrinkage. Thus, already in early extrastriate cortex, receptive fields are not static entities but are highly modifiable, enabling the dynamic allocation of processing resources to attended locations and supporting enhanced perception within the focus of attention by effectively increasing the local cortical magnification.

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Figure 1: Experimental protocol.
Figure 2: Receptive field profiles of an example cell, as 2D surface plots.
Figure 3: Quantification of RF shift and shrinkage.
Figure 4: Receptive field shift when attention is directed inside versus outside the receptive field.


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We thank T. Tzvetanov and M. Husain for discussions in the course of this study; U. Grosshennig, D. Prüsse, K. Fahrner and R. Rode-Brockhausen for technical assistance; and D. Heller-Schmerold and S. Stuber for administrative assistance. This work was supported by the German Research Foundation (SFB 550 & GRK 289) and the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience, Göttingen (Federal Ministry of Education and Research grant 01GQ0433).

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



T.W. and S.T. conceived the experiment and performed the data analysis. T.W. and K.A.-E. performed the experiments. F.P. provided technical assistance and helped during the experiment. T.W. and S.T. wrote the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Thilo Womelsdorf.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Fig. 1

Receptive field profiles of an example cell as 2-dimensional surface plots. (PDF 41 kb)

Supplementary Fig. 2

Distribution of eye positions for trials where attention was directed onto one of the stimuli inside the receptive field in three example cells. (PDF 51 kb)

Supplementary Fig. 3

Spatial isotropy of changes in receptive field size with attention inside (to stimulus S1 or S2) versus attention outside the receptive field (to stimulus S3). (PDF 35 kb)

Supplementary Note (PDF 46 kb)

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Womelsdorf, T., Anton-Erxleben, K., Pieper, F. et al. Dynamic shifts of visual receptive fields in cortical area MT by spatial attention. Nat Neurosci 9, 1156–1160 (2006).

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