Strategic deployment of feature-based attentional gain in primate visual cortex
Citable Link (URL):http://resolver.sub.uni-goettingen.de/purl?gs-1/16462
Attending to visual stimuli enhances the gain of those neurons in primate visual cortex that preferentially respond to the matching locations and features (on-target gain). Although this is well suited to enhance the neuronal representation of attended stimuli, it is nonoptimal under difficult discrimination conditions, as in the presence of similar distractors. In such cases, directing attention to neighboring neuronal populations (off-target gain) has been shown to be the most efficient strategy, but although such a strategic deployment of attention has been shown behaviorally, its underlying neural mechanisms are unknown. Here, we investigated how attention affects the population responses of neurons in the middle temporal (MT) visual area of rhesus monkeys to bidirectional movement inside the neurons' receptive field (RF). The monkeys were trained to focus their attention onto the fixation spot or to detect a direction or speed change in one of the motion directions (the "target"), ignoring the distractor motion. Population activity profiles were determined by systematically varying the patterns' directions while maintaining a constant angle between them. As expected, the response profiles show a peak for each of the 2 motion directions. Switching spatial attention from the fixation spot into the RF enhanced the peak representing the attended stimulus and suppressed the distractor representation. Importantly, the population data show a direction-dependent attentional modulation that does not peak at the target feature but rather along the slopes of the activity profile representing the target direction. Our results show that attentional gains are strategically deployed to optimize the discriminability of target stimuli, in line with an optimal gain mechanism proposed by Navalpakkam and Itti.