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J Neurophysiol. 2010 Aug;104(2):885-95. doi: 10.1152/jn.00369.2010. Epub 2010 May 19.

Spatial attention improves the quality of population codes in human visual cortex.

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Perception and Cognition Laboratory, Department of Psychology and Graduate Program in Neuroscience, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, California 92093-0109, USA.


Selective attention enables sensory input from behaviorally relevant stimuli to be processed in greater detail, so that these stimuli can more accurately influence thoughts, actions, and future goals. Attention has been shown to modulate the spiking activity of single feature-selective neurons that encode basic stimulus properties (color, orientation, etc.). However, the combined output from many such neurons is required to form stable representations of relevant objects and little empirical work has formally investigated the relationship between attentional modulations on population responses and improvements in encoding precision. Here, we used functional MRI and voxel-based feature tuning functions to show that spatial attention induces a multiplicative scaling in orientation-selective population response profiles in early visual cortex. In turn, this multiplicative scaling correlates with an improvement in encoding precision, as evidenced by a concurrent increase in the mutual information between population responses and the orientation of attended stimuli. These data therefore demonstrate how multiplicative scaling of neural responses provides at least one mechanism by which spatial attention may improve the encoding precision of population codes. Increased encoding precision in early visual areas may then enhance the speed and accuracy of perceptual decisions computed by higher-order neural mechanisms.

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