Object-based attention to one of two superimposed surfaces alters responses in human early visual cortex

Vivian M Ciaramitaro, Jude F Mitchell, Gene R Stoner, John H Reynolds, Geoffrey M Boynton
Journal of Neurophysiology 2011, 105 (3): 1258-65
Faced with an overwhelming amount of sensory information, we are able to prioritize the processing of select spatial locations and visual features. The neuronal mechanisms underlying such spatial and feature-based selection have been studied in considerable detail. More recent work shows that attention can also be allocated to objects, even spatially superimposed objects composed of dynamically changing features that must be integrated to create a coherent object representation. Much less is known about the mechanisms underlying such object-based selection. Our goal was to investigate behavioral and neuronal responses when attention was directed to one of two objects, specifically one of two superimposed transparent surfaces, in a task designed to preclude space-based and feature-based selection. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure changes in blood oxygen level-dependent (BOLD) signals when attention was deployed to one or the other surface. We found that visual areas V1, V2, V3, V3A, and MT+ showed enhanced BOLD responses to translations of an attended relative to an unattended surface. These results reveal that visual areas as early as V1 can be modulated by attending to objects, even objects defined by dynamically changing elements. This provides definitive evidence in humans that early visual areas are involved in a seemingly high-order process. Furthermore, our results suggest that these early visual areas may participate in object-specific feature "binding," a process that seemingly must occur for an object or a surface to be the unit of attentional selection.

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