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Curr Biol. 2013 Jan 21;23(2):156-61. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2012.11.048. Epub 2012 Dec 20.

Selective attention in an insect visual neuron.

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Adelaide Centre for Neuroscience Research, School of Medical Sciences, The University of Adelaide, Adelaide, SA 5005, Australia.


Animals need attention to focus on one target amid alternative distracters. Dragonflies, for example, capture flies in swarms comprising prey and conspecifics, a feat that requires neurons to select one moving target from competing alternatives. Diverse evidence, from functional imaging and physiology to psychophysics, highlights the importance of such "competitive selection" in attention for vertebrates. Analogous mechanisms have been proposed in artificial intelligence and even in invertebrates, yet direct neural correlates of attention are scarce from all animal groups. Here, we demonstrate responses from an identified dragonfly visual neuron that perfectly match a model for competitive selection within limits of neuronal variability (r(2) = 0.83). Responses to individual targets moving at different locations within the receptive field differ in both magnitude and time course. However, responses to two simultaneous targets exclusively track those for one target alone rather than any combination of the pair. Irrespective of target size, contrast, or separation, this neuron selects one target from the pair and perfectly preserves the response, regardless of whether the "winner" is the stronger stimulus if presented alone. This neuron is amenable to electrophysiological recordings, providing neuroscientists with a new model system for studying selective attention.

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