Neural measures of dynamic changes in attentive tracking load

Trafton Drew, Todd S Horowitz, Jeremy M Wolfe, Edward K Vogel
Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 2012, 24 (2): 440-50
In everyday life, we often need to track several objects simultaneously, a task modeled in the laboratory using the multiple-object tracking (MOT) task [Pylyshyn, Z., & Storm, R. W. Tracking multiple independent targets: Evidence for a parallel tracking mechanism. Spatial Vision, 3, 179-197, 1988]. Unlike MOT, however, in life, the set of relevant targets tends to be fluid and change over time. Humans are quite adept at "juggling" targets in and out of the target set [Wolfe, J. M., Place, S. S., & Horowitz, T. S. Multiple object juggling: Changing what is tracked during extended MOT. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 14, 344-349, 2007]. Here, we measured the neural underpinnings of this process using electrophysiological methods. Vogel and colleagues [McCollough, A. W., Machizawa, M. G., & Vogel, E. K. Electrophysiological measures of maintaining representations in visual working memory. Cortex, 43, 77-94, 2007; Vogel, E. K., McCollough, A. W., & Machizawa, M. G. Neural measures reveal individual differences in controlling access to working memory. Nature, 438, 500-503, 2005; Vogel, E. K., & Machizawa, M. G. Neural activity predicts individual differences in visual working memory capacity. Nature, 428, 748-751, 2004] have shown that the amplitude of a sustained lateralized negativity, contralateral delay activity (CDA) indexes the number of items held in visual working memory. Drew and Vogel [Drew, T., & Vogel, E. K. Neural measures of individual differences in selecting and tracking multiple moving objects. Journal of Neuroscience, 28, 4183-4191, 2008] showed that the CDA also indexes the number of items being tracking a standard MOT task. In the current study, we set out to determine whether the CDA is a signal that merely represents the number of objects that are attended during a trial or a dynamic signal capable of reflecting on-line changes in tracking load during a single trial. By measuring the response to add or drop cues, we were able to observe dynamic changes in CDA amplitude. The CDA appears to rapidly represent the current number of objects being tracked. In addition, we were able to generate some initial estimates of the time course of this dynamic process.

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