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Cereb Cortex. 2011 Mar;21(3):659-65. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhq139. Epub 2010 Aug 9.

Working memory load modulates distractor competition in primary visual cortex.

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Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College, London, UK.


When stimuli compete for sensory processing and response selection, coherent goal-guided behavior requires cognitive control so that task-relevant "targets" rather than irrelevant distractors are selected. It has been shown that reduced cognitive control under high working memory load increases distractor competition for selection. It remains unknown, though, whether cognitive control by working memory has an effect on the earliest levels of sensory processing in primary visual cortex. The present study addressed this question by having subjects perform a selective attention task involving classification of meaningful target objects while also ignoring congruent and incongruent distractor images. The level of cognitive control over distractor competition was varied through a concurrent working memory task of either low (1 digit) or high (6 digits) load. Functional magnetic resonance imaging revealed greater distractor competition effects not only on behavior but also on the sensory correlates in primary visual cortex (areas V1-V2) in conditions of high (vs. low) working memory load. In addition, high working memory load resulted in increased congruency-related functional connectivity between anterior cingulate cortex and V1. These results are the first to establish the neural correlates of distractor competition effects in primary visual cortex and the critical role of working memory in their cognitive control.

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