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Neuropsychologia. 2007 Sep 20;45(12):2683-91. Epub 2007 Apr 19.

Intact subliminal processing and delayed conscious access in multiple sclerosis.

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Centre de Résonance Magnétique Biologique et Médicale (CRMBM) UMR CNRS 6612, Faculté de Médecine, Université de la Méditerranée, Marseille, France.


Periventricular white matter damage affecting large bundles connecting distant cortical areas may constitute the main neuronal mechanism for the deficit of controlled information processing observed in patients with early multiple sclerosis (MS). Visual backward masking has been demonstrated to affect late stages of conscious perception involving long-range interactions between visual perceptual areas and higher level integrative cortices while leaving intact early feed-forward visual processing and even complex processing such as object recognition or semantic processing. We therefore hypothesized that patients with early MS would have an elevated masking threshold, because of an impairment of conscious perception whereas subliminal processing of masked stimuli would be preserved. Twenty-two patients with early MS and 22 normal controls performed two backward-masking experiments. We used Arabic digits as stimuli and varied quasi-continuously the temporal interval with a subsequent mask, thus allowing us to progressively "unmask" the stimuli. We finely quantified the visibility of the masked stimuli using both objective and subjective measures, thus obtaining accurate estimates of the threshold duration for access to consciousness. We also studied the priming effect caused by the variably masked numbers on a comparison task performed on a subsequently presented and highly visible target number. The threshold for access to consciousness of masked stimuli was elevated in MS patients compared to controls, whereas non-conscious processing of these stimuli, as measured by priming, was preserved. These findings suggest that conscious access to masked stimuli depends on the integrity of large-scale cortical integrative processes, which involve long-distance white matter projections, and are impaired due to diffuse demyelinating injury in patients with early MS.

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