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Neuron. 2011 Jun 23;70(6):1192-204. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2011.04.029.

Using neuronal populations to study the mechanisms underlying spatial and feature attention.

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Harvard Medical School Department of Neurobiology and Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Boston, MA 02115, USA.


Visual attention affects both perception and neuronal responses. Whether the same neuronal mechanisms mediate spatial attention, which improves perception of attended locations, and nonspatial forms of attention has been a subject of considerable debate. Spatial and feature attention have similar effects on individual neurons. Because visual cortex is retinotopically organized, however, spatial attention can comodulate local neuronal populations, whereas feature attention generally requires more selective modulation. We compared the effects of feature and spatial attention on local and spatially separated populations by recording simultaneously from dozens of neurons in both hemispheres of V4. Feature and spatial attention affect the activity of local populations similarly, modulating both firing rates and correlations between pairs of nearby neurons. However, whereas spatial attention appears to act on local populations, feature attention is coordinated across hemispheres. Our results are consistent with a unified attentional mechanism that can modulate the responses of arbitrary subgroups of neurons.

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