Does the Superior Colliculus Control Perceptual Sensitivity or Choice Bias during Attention? Evidence from a Multialternative Decision Framework

J Neurosci. 2017 Jan 18;37(3):480-511. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4505-14.2017.


Distinct networks in the forebrain and the midbrain coordinate to control spatial attention. The critical involvement of the superior colliculus (SC)-the central structure in the midbrain network-in visuospatial attention has been shown by four seminal, published studies in monkeys (Macaca mulatta) performing multialternative tasks. However, due to the lack of a mechanistic framework for interpreting behavioral data in such tasks, the nature of the SC's contribution to attention remains unclear. Here we present and validate a novel decision framework for analyzing behavioral data in multialternative attention tasks. We apply this framework to re-examine the behavioral evidence from these published studies. Our model is a multidimensional extension to signal detection theory that distinguishes between two major classes of attentional mechanisms: those that alter the quality of sensory information or "sensitivity," and those that alter the selective gating of sensory information or "choice bias." Model-based simulations and model-based analyses of data from these published studies revealed a converging pattern of results that indicated that choice-bias changes, rather than sensitivity changes, were the primary outcome of SC manipulation. Our results suggest that the SC contributes to attentional performance predominantly by generating a spatial choice bias for stimuli at a selected location, and that this bias operates downstream of forebrain mechanisms that enhance sensitivity. The findings lead to a testable mechanistic framework of how the midbrain and forebrain networks interact to control spatial attention.

Significance statement: Attention involves the selection of the most relevant information for differential sensory processing and decision making. While the mechanisms by which attention alters sensory encoding (sensitivity control) are well studied, the mechanisms by which attention alters decisional weighting of sensory evidence (choice-bias control) are poorly understood. Here, we introduce a model of multialternative decision making that distinguishes bias from sensitivity effects in attention tasks. With our model, we simulate experimental data from four seminal studies that microstimulated or inactivated a key attention-related midbrain structure, the superior colliculus (SC). We demonstrate that the experimental effects of SC manipulation are entirely consistent with the SC controlling attention by changing choice bias, thereby shedding new light on how the brain mediates attention.

Keywords: attention mechanisms; behavior; microstimulation and inactivation; midbrain; multialternative decisions; signal-detection theory.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Chickens
  • Choice Behavior / physiology*
  • Decision Making / physiology*
  • Female
  • Macaca mulatta
  • Male
  • Photic Stimulation / methods*
  • Superior Colliculi / physiology*
  • Visual Perception / physiology*