Transcranial magnetic stimulation reveals attentional feedback to area V1 during serial visual search

PLoS One. 2011;6(5):e19712. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0019712. Epub 2011 May 17.


Visual search tasks have been used to understand how, where and when attention influences visual processing. Current theories suggest the involvement of a high-level "saliency map" that selects a candidate location to focus attentional resources. For a parallel (or "pop-out") task, the first chosen location is systematically the target, but for a serial (or "difficult") task, the system may cycle on a few distractors before finally focusing on the target. This implies that attentional effects upon early visual areas, involving feedback from higher areas, should be visible at longer latencies during serial search. A previous study from Juan & Walsh (2003) had used Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) to support this conclusion; however, only a few post-stimulus delays were compared, and no control TMS location was used. Here we applied TMS double-pulses (sub-threshold) to induce a transient inhibition of area V1 at every post-stimulus delay between 100 ms and 500 ms (50 ms steps). The search array was presented either at the location affected by the TMS pulses (previously identified by applying several pulses at supra-threshold intensity to induce phosphene perception), or in the opposite hemifield, which served as a retinotopically-defined control location. Two search tasks were used: a parallel (+ among Ls) and a serial one (T among Ls). TMS specifically impaired the serial, but not the parallel search. We highlight an involvement of V1 in serial search 300 ms after the onset; conversely, V1 did not contribute to parallel search at delays beyond 100 ms. This study supports the idea that serial search differs from parallel search by the presence of additional cycles of a select-and-focus iterative loop between V1 and higher-level areas.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Feedback, Physiological*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Reaction Time
  • Serial Learning / physiology*
  • Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation*
  • Visual Cortex / physiology*
  • Visual Perception / physiology*
  • Young Adult