Pulvinar and Affective Significance: Responses Track Moment-to-Moment Stimulus Visibility

Front Hum Neurosci. 2010 Sep 24;4:64. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2010.00064. eCollection 2010.


Research on emotion has considered the pulvinar to be an important component of a subcortical pathway conveying visual information to the amygdala in a largely "automatic" fashion. An older literature has focused on understanding the role of the pulvinar in visual attention. To address the inconsistency between these independent literatures, in the present study, we investigated how pulvinar responses are involved in the processing of affectively significant stimuli and how they are influenced by stimulus visibility during attentionally demanding conditions. Subjects performed an attentional blink task during fMRI scanning involving affectively significant (CS+) and neutral stimuli (CS-). Pulvinar responses were not influenced by affective significance (CS+ vs. CS-) per se. Instead, evoked responses were only modulated by affective significance during hit trials, but not during miss trials. Importantly, moment-to-moment fluctuations in response magnitude closely tracked trial-by-trial detection performance, and thereby visibility. This relationship was only reliably detected during the affective condition. Our results do not support a passive role of the pulvinar in affective processing, as invoked in the context of the subcortical-pathway hypothesis. Instead, the pulvinar appears to be involved in mechanisms that are closely linked to attention and awareness. As part of thalamocortical loops with diverse cortical territories, we argue that the medial pulvinar is well positioned to influence information processing in the brain according to a stimulus's biological significance. In particular, when weak and/or brief visual stimuli have affective significance, cortico-pulvino-cortical circuits may act to coordinate and amplify signals in a manner that enhances their behavioral impact.

Keywords: attention; attentional blink; conditioning; emotion; subcortical pathway.