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The time-course of feature-based attention effects dissociated from temporal expectation and target-related processes
AbstractSelective attention prioritises relevant information amongst competing sensory input. Time-resolved electrophysiological studies have shown stronger representation of attended compared to unattended stimuli, which has been interpreted as an effect of attention on information coding. However, because attention is often manipulated by making only the attended stimulus a target to be remembered and/or responded to, many reported attention effects have been confounded with target-related processes such as visual short-term memory or decision-making. In addition, attention effects could be influenced by temporal expectation about when something is likely to happen. The aim of this study was to investigate the dynamic effect of attention on visual processing using multivariate pattern analysis of electroencephalography (EEG) data, while (1) controlling for target-related confounds, and (2) directly investigating the influence of temporal expectation. Participants viewed rapid sequences of overlaid oriented grating pairs while detecting a “target” grating of a particular orientation. We manipulated attention, one grating was attended and the other ignored (cued by colour), and temporal expectation, with stimulus onset timing either predictable or not. We controlled for target-related processing confounds by only analysing non-target trials. Both attended and ignored gratings were initially coded equally in the pattern of responses across EEG sensors. An effect of attention, with preferential coding of the attended stimulus, emerged approximately 230 ms after stimulus onset. This attention effect occurred even when controlling for target-related processing confounds, and regardless of stimulus onset expectation. These results provide insight into the effect of feature-based attention on the dynamic processing of competing visual information.
The human brain prioritises relevant sensory information to perform different tasks. Enhancement of task-relevant information requires flexible allocation of attentional resources, but it is still a mystery how this is operationalised in the brain. We investigated how attentional mechanisms operate in situations where multiple stimuli are presented in the same location and at the same time. In two experiments, participants performed a challenging two-back task on different types of visual stimuli that were presented simultaneously and superimposed over each other. Using electroencephalography and multivariate decoding, we analysed the effect of attention on the neural responses to each individual stimulus. Whole brain neural responses contained considerable information about both the attended and unattended stimuli, even though they were presented simultaneously and represented in overlapping receptive fields. As expected, attention increased the decodability of stimulus-related information contained in the neural responses, but this effect was evident earlier for stimuli that were presented at smaller sizes. Our results show that early neural responses to stimuli in fast-changing displays contain remarkable information about the sensory environment but are also modulated by attention in a manner dependent on perceptual characteristics of the relevant stimuli. Stimuli, code, and data for this study can be found at https://osf.io/7zhwp/.
How are visual inputs transformed into conceptual representations by the human visual system? The contents of human perception, such as objects presented on a visual display, can reliably be decoded from voxel activation patterns in fMRI, and in evoked sensor activations in MEG and EEG. A prevailing question is the extent to which brain activation associated with object categories is due to statistical regularities of visual features within object categories. Here, we assessed the contribution of mid-level features to conceptual category decoding using EEG and a novel fast periodic decoding paradigm. Our study used a stimulus set consisting of intact objects from the animate (e.g., fish) and inanimate categories (e.g., chair) and scrambled versions of the same objects that were unrecognizable and preserved their visual features (Long et al., 2018). By presenting the images at different periodic rates, we biased processing to different levels of the visual hierarchy. We found that scrambled objects and their intact counterparts elicited similar patterns of activation, which could be used to decode the conceptual category (animate or inanimate), even for the unrecognizable scrambled objects. Animacy decoding for the scrambled objects, however, was only possible at the slowest periodic presentation rate. Animacy decoding for intact objects was faster, more robust, and could be achieved at faster presentation rates. Our results confirm that the mid-level visual features preserved in the scrambled objects contribute to animacy decoding, but also demonstrate that the dynamics vary markedly for intact versus scrambled objects. Our findings suggest a complex interplay between visual feature coding and categorical representations that is mediated by the visual system's capacity to use image features to resolve a recognisable object.
The basic computations performed in the human early visual cortex are the foundation for visual perception. While we know a lot about these computations, a key missing piece is how the coding of visual features relates to our perception of the environment. To investigate visual feature coding, interactions, and their relationship to human perception, we investigated neural responses and perceptual similarity judgements to a large set of visual stimuli that varied parametrically along four feature dimensions. We measured neural responses using electroencephalography (N = 16) to 256 grating stimuli that varied in orientation, spatial frequency, contrast, and colour. We then mapped the response profiles of the neural coding of each visual feature and their interactions, and related these to independently obtained behavioural judgements of stimulus similarity. The results confirmed fundamental principles of feature coding in the visual system, such that all four features were processed simultaneously but differed in their dynamics, and there was distinctive conjunction coding for different combinations of features in the neural responses. Importantly, modelling of the behaviour revealed that every stimulus feature contributed to perceptual judgements, despite the untargeted nature of the behavioural task. Further, the relationship between neural coding and behaviour was evident from initial processing stages, signifying that the fundamental features, not just their interactions, contribute to perception. This study highlights the importance of understanding how feature coding progresses through the visual hierarchy and the relationship between different stages of processing and perception.
Humans can covertly track the position of an object, even if the object is temporarily occluded. What are the neural mechanisms underlying our capacity to track moving objects when there is no physical stimulus for the brain to track? One possibility is that the brain ‘fills-in’ information about imagined objects using internally generated representations similar to those generated by feed-forward perceptual mechanisms. Alternatively, the brain might deploy a higher order mechanism, for example using an object tracking model that integrates visual signals and motion dynamics. In the present study, we used EEG and time-resolved multivariate pattern analyses to investigate the spatial processing of visible and imagined objects. Participants tracked an object that moved in discrete steps around fixation, occupying six consecutive locations. They were asked to imagine that the object continued on the same trajectory after it disappeared and move their attention to the corresponding positions. Time-resolved decoding of EEG data revealed that the location of the visible stimuli could be decoded shortly after image onset, consistent with early retinotopic visual processes. For processing of unseen/imagined positions, the patterns of neural activity resembled stimulus-driven mid-level visual processes, but were detected earlier than perceptual mechanisms, implicating an anticipatory and more variable tracking mechanism. Encoding models revealed that spatial representations were much weaker for imagined than visible stimuli. Monitoring the position of imagined objects thus utilises similar perceptual and attentional processes as monitoring objects that are actually present, but with different temporal dynamics. These results indicate that internally generated representations rely on top-down processes, and their timing is influenced by the predictability of the stimulus.
Mental imagery is the ability to generate images in the mind in the absence of sensory input. Both perceptual visual processing and internally generated imagery engage large, overlapping networks of brain regions. However, it is unclear whether they are characterized by similar temporal dynamics. Recent magnetoencephalography work has shown that object category information was decodable from brain activity during mental imagery, but the timing was delayed relative to perception. The current study builds on these findings, using electroencephalography to investigate the dynamics of mental imagery. Sixteen participants viewed two images of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and two images of Santa Claus. On each trial, they viewed a sequence of the four images and were asked to imagine one of them, which was cued retroactively by its temporal location in the sequence. Time-resolved multivariate pattern analysis was used to decode the viewed and imagined stimuli. Although category and exemplar information was decodable for viewed stimuli, there were no informative patterns of activity during mental imagery. The current findings suggest stimulus complexity, task design and individual differences may influence the ability to successfully decode imagined images. We discuss the implications of these results in the context of prior findings of mental imagery.
Visuospatial memory in apraxia: Exploring quantitative drawing metrics to assess the representation of local and global information
Neuropsychological evidence suggests that visuospatial memory is subserved by two separable processing systems, with dorsal underpinnings for global form and ventral underpinnings for the integration of part elements. Previous drawing studies have explored the effects of Gestalt organisation upon memory for hierarchical stimuli, and we here present an exploratory study of an apraxic dorsal stream patient’s (MH) performance. We presented MH with a stimulus set (previously reported by Riddoch et al., Cognitive Neuropsychology, 20(7), 641-671, 2003) and devised a novel quantitative scoring system to obtain a finer grain of insight into performance. Stimuli possessed either good or poor Gestalt qualities and were reproduced in a copy condition and two visual memory conditions (with unlimited viewing before the model was removed, or with 3 s viewing). MH’s copying performance was impaired in comparison to younger adult and age-matched older adult controls, with a variety of errors at the local level but relatively few at the global level. However, his performance in the visual memory conditions revealed impairments at the global level. For all participants, drawing errors were modulated by the Gestalt qualities of the stimuli, with accuracy at the global and local levels being lesser for poor global stimuli in all conditions. These data extend previous observations of this patient, and support theories that posit interaction between dorsal and ventral streams in the representation of hierarchical stimuli. We discuss the implications of these findings for our understanding of visuospatial memory in neurological patients, and also evaluate the application of quantitative metrics to the interpretation of drawings.
Lasting dynamic effects of the psychedelic 2,5-dimethoxy-4-iodoamphetamine ((±)-DOI) on cognitive flexibility.
Psychedelic drugs can aid fast and lasting remission from various neuropsychiatric disorders, though the underlying mechanisms remain unclear. Preclinical studies suggest serotonergic psychedelics enhance neuronal plasticity, but whether neuroplastic changes can also be seen at cognitive and behavioural levels is unexplored. Here we show that a single dose of the psychedelic 2,5-dimethoxy-4-iodoamphetamine ((±)-DOI) affects structural brain plasticity and cognitive flexibility in young adult mice beyond the acute drug experience. Using ex vivo magnetic resonance imaging, we show increased volumes of several sensory and association areas one day after systemic administration of 2 mgkg-1 (±)-DOI. We then demonstrate lasting effects of (±)-DOI on cognitive flexibility in a two-step probabilistic reversal learning task where 2 mgkg-1 (±)-DOI improved the rate of adaptation to a novel reversal in task structure occurring one-week post-treatment. Strikingly, (±)-DOI-treated mice started learning from reward omissions, a unique strategy not typically seen in mice in this task, suggesting heightened sensitivity to previously overlooked cues. Crucially, further experiments revealed that (±)-DOI's effects on cognitive flexibility were contingent on the timing between drug treatment and the novel reversal, as well as on the nature of the intervening experience. (±)-DOI's facilitation of both cognitive adaptation and novel thinking strategies may contribute to the clinical benefits of psychedelic-assisted therapy, particularly in cases of perseverative behaviours and a resistance to change seen in depression, anxiety, or addiction. Furthermore, our findings highlight the crucial role of time-dependent neuroplasticity and the influence of experiential factors in shaping the therapeutic potential of psychedelic interventions for impaired cognitive flexibility.
Remote digital cognitive assessment reveals cognitive deficits related to hippocampal atrophy in autoimmune limbic encephalitis: a cross-sectional validation study
Background: Autoimmune limbic encephalitis (ALE) is a neurological disease characterised by inflammation of the limbic regions of the brain, mediated by pathogenic autoantibodies. Because cognitive deficits persist following acute treatment of ALE, the accurate assessment of long-term cognitive outcomes is important for clinical assessments and trials. However, evaluating cognition is costly and an unmet need exists for validated digital methods. Methods: In this cross-sectional validation study, we investigated whether a remote digital platform could identify previously characterised cognitive impairments in patients with chronic ALE and whether digital metrics would correlate with standard neuropsychological assessment and hippocampal volume. Patients with ALE who had a chronic and stable presentation and received a clinical diagnosis of ALE were recruited for this study. The cognitive performance of 21 patients with ALE and 54 age-matched healthy controls — enrolled via the University of Oxford (UK) Cognitive Neurology Lab testing programme — was assessed with a battery of 12 cognitive tasks from the Cognitron online platform. The platform was optimised with National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) support to be deliverable remotely to elderly and patient groups. The primary outcome measure was behavioural performance and corresponding neuroimaging and neuropsychological assessment metrics. Findings: Between February 15, 2021, and April 21, 2022, 21 patients with ALE (mean age 63.01 years, 14 males) and 54 healthy controls (mean age 65.56 years, 23 males) completed the digital cognitive assessment. Patients with ALE performed significantly worse in memory, visuospatial abilities, executive function, and language. No impairments in digit & spatial span, target detection (attention) and emotion discrimination were observed. The global score on the online cognitive tasks correlated significantly with the established Addenbrooke's Cognitive Examination III (ACE) pen-and-paper test. Deficits in visuospatial processing and language were identified in ALE compared to controls using remote digital testing but not using the ACE, highlighting higher sensitivity of computerised testing to residual cognitive impairment. Finally, the hippocampal volumes of patients with ALE and healthy controls correlated with online cognitive scores. Interpretation: These findings demonstrate that subtle cognitive deficits in patients with chronic ALE, who often show full recovery in measures of disability and dependence on daily activities, are detectable using a remote online platform, which also relates to hippocampal atrophy. Such methods may facilitate the characterisation of cognitive profiles in complex neurological diseases. Future longitudinal studies designed to assess the utility of such digital methods for further clinical characterisation are needed. Funding: The Wellcome Trust, Medical Research Council, National Institute for Health Research, Rhodes Scholarship, and the Berrow Foundation Scholarship.
Microsaccades are small, involuntary eye movements that occur during fixation. Their role is debated with recent hypotheses proposing a contribution to automatic scene sampling. Microsaccade inhibition (MSI) refers to the abrupt suppression of microsaccades, typically evoked within 0.1 seconds after new stimulus onset. The functional significance and neural underpinnings of MSI are subjects of ongoing research. It has been suggested that MSI is a component of the brain's attentional re-orienting network which facilitates the allocation of attention to new environmental occurrences by reducing disruptions or shifts in gaze that could interfere with processing.The extent to which MSI is reflexive or influenced by top-down mechanisms remains debated. We developed a task that examines the impact of auditory top-down attention on MSI, allowing us to disentangle ocular dynamics from visual sensory processing. Participants (N=24 and 27; both sexes) listened to two simultaneous streams of tones and were instructed to attend to one stream while detecting specific task "targets." We quantified MSI in response to occasional task-irrelevant events presented in both the attended and unattended streams (frequency steps in Experiment 1, omissions in Experiment 2).The results show that initial stages of MSI are not affected by auditory attention. However, later stages (∼0.25s post event-onset), affecting the extent and duration of the inhibition, are enhanced for sounds in the attended stream compared to the unattended stream. These findings provide converging evidence for the reflexive nature of early MSI stages and robustly demonstrate the involvement of auditory attention in modulating the later stages.Significance Statement Microsaccades are rapid eye movements occurring during fixation. Their precise role is not known but a major hypothesis is that they reflect automatic sampling of the environment. A feature of microsaccades is that they exhibit abrupt suppression (MSI) after the presentation of new stimuli. This is thought to be part of attentional re-orienting. To understand the neural circuit that controls MSI, and by extension, the brain's response to novel events in the environment, it is essential to determine which factors affect MSI. We show, for the first time, that auditory attention affects the latter (but not initial) stages of MSI. Thus, the early stages of MSI are automatic, but subsequent phases are affected by the perceptual state of the individual.
The prefrontal cortex is crucial for learning and decision-making. Classic reinforcement learning (RL) theories center on learning the expectation of potential rewarding outcomes and explain a wealth of neural data in the prefrontal cortex. Distributional RL, on the other hand, learns the full distribution of rewarding outcomes and better explains dopamine responses. In the present study, we show that distributional RL also better explains macaque anterior cingulate cortex neuronal responses, suggesting that it is a common mechanism for reward-guided learning.
Motivational deficits in patients recovering from stroke are common and can reduce active participation in rehabilitation and thereby impede functional recovery. We investigated whether stroke patients with clinically reduced drive, initiation, and endurance during functional rehabilitative training (n = 30) display systematic alterations in effort-based decision making compared to age, sex, and severity-matched stroke patients (n = 30) whose drive appeared unaffected. Notably, the two groups did not differ in self-reported ratings of apathy and depression. However, on an effort-based decision-making task, stroke patients with clinically apparent drive impairment showed intact willingness to accept effort for reward, but were more likely to fail to execute the required effort compared to patients without apparent drive impairments. In other words, the decision behavioural assessment revealed that stroke patients that displayed reduced drive, initiation, and endurance during inpatient neurorehabilitation failed to persist in goal-directed effort production, even over very short periods. These findings indicate that reduced drive during rehabilitative therapy in post-stroke patients is not due to a diminished motivation to invest physical effort, but instead is related to a reduced persistence with effortful behaviour.