Neural mechanisms of surround attenuation and distractor competition in visual search

Carsten N Boehler, John K Tsotsos, Mircea A Schoenfeld, Hans-Jochen Heinze, Jens-Max Hopf
Journal of Neuroscience 2011 April 6, 31 (14): 5213-24
Visual attention biases relevant processing in the visual system by amplifying relevant or attenuating irrelevant sensory input. A potential signature of the latter operation, referred to as surround attenuation, has recently been identified in the electromagnetic brain response of human observers performing visual search. It was found that a zone of attenuated cortical excitability surrounds the target when the search required increased spatial resolution for item discrimination. Here we address the obvious hypothesis that surround attenuation serves distractor suppression in the vicinity of the target where interference from irrelevant search items is maximal. To test this hypothesis, surround attenuation was assessed under conditions when the target was presented in isolation versus when it was surrounded by distractors. Surprisingly, substantial and indistinguishable surround attenuation was seen under both conditions, indicating that it reflects an attentional operation independent of the presence of distractors. Adding distractors in the target's surround, however, increased the amplitude of the N2pc--an evoked response known to index distractor competition in visual search. Moreover, adding distractors led to a topographical change of source activity underlying the N2pc toward earlier extrastriate areas. In contrast, the topography of reduced source activity due to surround attenuation remained unaltered with and without distractors in the target's surround. We conclude that surround attenuation is not a direct consequence of the attenuation of distractors in visual search and that it dissociates from attentional operations reflected by the N2pc. A theoretical framework is proposed that links both operations in a common model of top-down attentional selection in visual cortex.

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