Background: Attending to the spatial location or to nonspatial features of visual stimuli can modulate neuronal responses in primate visual cortex. The modulation by spatial attention changes the gain of sensory neurons and strengthens the representation of attended locations without changing neuronal selectivities such as directionality, i.e., the ratio of responses to preferred and anti-preferred directions of motion. Whether feature-based attention acts in a similar manner is unknown.
Results: To clarify this issue, we recorded the responses of 135 direction-selective neurons in the middle temporal area (MT) of two macaques to an unattended moving random dot pattern (the distractor) positioned inside a neuron's receptive field while the animals attended to a second moving pattern positioned in the opposite hemifield. Responses to different directions of the distractor were modulated by the same factor (approximately 12%) as long as the attended direction remained unchanged. On the other hand, systematically changing the attended direction from a neuron's preferred to its anti-preferred direction caused a systematic change of the attentional modulation from an enhancement to a suppression, increasing directionality by about 20%.
Conclusions: The results show that (1) feature-based attention exerts a multiplicative modulation upon neuronal responses and that the strength of this modulation depends on the similarity between the attended feature and the cell's preferred feature, in line with the feature-similarity gain model, and (2) at the level of the neuronal population, feature-based attention increases the selectivity for attended features by increasing the responses of neurons preferring this feature value while decreasing responses of neurons tuned to the opposite feature value.