Dissociating vision and visual attention in the human pulvinar

J Neurophysiol. 2009 Feb;101(2):917-25. doi: 10.1152/jn.90963.2008. Epub 2008 Dec 10.


The pulvinar region of the thalamus has repeatedly been linked with the control of attention. However, the functions of the pulvinar remain poorly characterized, both in human and in nonhuman primates. In a functional MRI study, we examined the relative contributions to activity in the human posterior pulvinar made by visual drive (the presence of an unattended visual stimulus) and attention (covert spatial attention to the stimulus). In an event-related design, large optic flow stimuli were presented to the left and/or right of a central fixation point. When unattended, the stimuli robustly activated two regions of the pulvinar, one medial and one dorsal with respect to the lateral geniculate. The activity in both regions shows a strong contralateral bias, suggesting retinotopic organization. Primate physiology suggests that the two regions could be two portions of the same double map of the visual field. In our paradigm, attending to the stimulus enhanced the response by about 20%. Thus attention is not necessary to activate the human pulvinar and the degree of attentional enhancement matches, but does not exceed, that seen in the cortical regions with which the posterior pulvinar connects.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Female
  • Functional Laterality
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted / methods
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Oxygen / blood
  • Photic Stimulation / methods
  • Pulvinar / anatomy & histology
  • Pulvinar / blood supply
  • Pulvinar / physiology*
  • Space Perception
  • Vision, Ocular / physiology*
  • Visual Fields / physiology*
  • Young Adult


  • Oxygen