Population response profiles in early visual cortex are biased in favor of more valuable stimuli

J Neurophysiol. 2010 Jul;104(1):76-87. doi: 10.1152/jn.01090.2009. Epub 2010 Apr 21.


Voluntary and stimulus-driven shifts of attention can modulate the representation of behaviorally relevant stimuli in early areas of visual cortex. In turn, attended items are processed faster and more accurately, facilitating the selection of appropriate behavioral responses. Information processing is also strongly influenced by past experience and recent studies indicate that the learned value of a stimulus can influence relatively late stages of decision making such as the process of selecting a motor response. However, the learned value of a stimulus can also influence the magnitude of cortical responses in early sensory areas such as V1 and S1. These early effects of stimulus value are presumed to improve the quality of sensory representations; however, the nature of these modulations is not clear. They could reflect nonspecific changes in response amplitude associated with changes in general arousal or they could reflect a bias in population responses so that high-value features are represented more robustly. To examine this issue, subjects performed a two-alternative forced choice paradigm with a variable-interval payoff schedule to dynamically manipulate the relative value of two stimuli defined by their orientation (one was rotated clockwise from vertical, the other counterclockwise). Activation levels in visual cortex were monitored using functional MRI and feature-selective voxel tuning functions while subjects performed the behavioral task. The results suggest that value not only modulates the relative amplitude of responses in early areas of human visual cortex, but also sharpens the response profile across the populations of feature-selective neurons that encode the critical stimulus feature (orientation). Moreover, changes in space- or feature-based attention cannot easily explain the results because representations of both the selected and the unselected stimuli underwent a similar feature-selective modulation. This sharpening in the population response profile could theoretically improve the probability of correctly discriminating high-value stimuli from low-value alternatives.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Algorithms
  • Choice Behavior / physiology
  • Data Interpretation, Statistical
  • Eye Movements / physiology
  • Female
  • Fixation, Ocular
  • Form Perception / physiology
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Models, Neurological
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Oxygen / blood
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology
  • Reward
  • Visual Cortex / cytology
  • Visual Cortex / physiology*


  • Oxygen