Automatic gain control contrast mechanisms are modulated by attention in humans: evidence from visual evoked potentials

Vision Res. 2001 Sep;41(19):2435-47. doi: 10.1016/s0042-6989(01)00134-1.


This study investigated the effect of attention on the contrast response curves of steady-state visual evoked potentials (VEPs) to counter-phased sinusoidal gratings. The 1 cyc/deg gratings were modulated either in luminance or chromaticity (equiluminant red-green). The luminance grating counter-phased at 9 Hz (to favour activation of the magno-cellular system), and the chromatic grating at 2.5 Hz (to favour activation of the parvo-cellular system). Attention was directed towards the gratings (displayed in the left visual field) by requiring subjects to detect and respond to randomly occurring changes in contrast. In the control condition, attention towards the grating was minimised by requiring subjects to detect a target letter amongst distracters briefly flashed in the contra-lateral visual field. Attention increased VEP amplitudes for both luminance and chromatic stimuli, more so at high than at low contrasts, increasing the slope of the contrast amplitude curves (over the non-saturating range of contrasts). The estimates of contrast threshold from extrapolation of amplitudes were unaffected by attention. Attention also changed the VEP phases, but only for luminance gratings, where it acted to reduce the magnitude of phase advance with contrast. Attention had no effect on the average phases for chromatic gratings. The results are consistent with the notion that attention acts on cortical gain control mechanisms, which are known to be different for the magno- and parvo-cellular systems.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Color Perception / physiology
  • Contrast Sensitivity / physiology*
  • Evoked Potentials, Visual*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Lighting
  • Linear Models
  • Male
  • Visual Pathways / physiology