The effect of attention on neuronal responses to high and low contrast stimuli

J Neurophysiol. 2010 Aug;104(2):960-71. doi: 10.1152/jn.01019.2009. Epub 2010 Jun 10.


It remains unclear how attention affects the tuning of individual neurons in visual cerebral cortex. Some observations suggest that attention preferentially enhances responses to low contrast stimuli, whereas others suggest that attention proportionally affects responses to all stimuli. Resolving how attention affects responses to different stimuli is essential for understanding the mechanism by which it acts. To explore the effects of attention on stimuli of different contrasts, we recorded from individual neurons in the middle temporal visual area (MT) of rhesus monkeys while shifting their attention between preferred and nonpreferred stimuli within their receptive fields. This configuration results in robust attentional modulation that makes it possible to readily distinguish whether attention acts preferentially on low contrast stimuli. We found no evidence for greater enhancement of low contrast stimuli. Instead, the strong attentional modulations were well explained by a model in which attention proportionally enhances responses to stimuli of all contrasts. These data, together with observations on the effects of attention on responses to other stimulus dimensions, suggest that the primary effect of attention in visual cortex may be to simply increase the strength of responses to all stimuli by the same proportion.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Action Potentials / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Contrast Sensitivity / physiology*
  • Macaca mulatta
  • Models, Biological
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Nonlinear Dynamics
  • Photic Stimulation / methods
  • Visual Cortex / cytology*
  • Visual Fields / physiology