Modulation of Oscillatory Neuronal Synchronization by Selective Visual Attention

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Science  23 Feb 2001:
Vol. 291, Issue 5508, pp. 1560-1563
DOI: 10.1126/science.1055465


In crowded visual scenes, attention is needed to select relevant stimuli. To study the underlying mechanisms, we recorded neurons in cortical area V4 while macaque monkeys attended to behaviorally relevant stimuli and ignored distracters. Neurons activated by the attended stimulus showed increased gamma-frequency (35 to 90 hertz) synchronization but reduced low-frequency (<17 hertz) synchronization compared with neurons at nearby V4 sites activated by distracters. Because postsynaptic integration times are short, these localized changes in synchronization may serve to amplify behaviorally relevant signals in the cortex.

Visual scenes typically contain multiple stimuli competing for control over behavior, and attention biases this competition in favor of the most relevant stimulus (1). Correspondingly, if two competing stimuli are contained within the receptive field (RF) of an extrastriate neuron, and one of them is attended, the neuron responds as though only the attended stimulus is present (2–6). Thus, inputs from attended stimuli must have an advantage over inputs from unattended stimuli (6). This is apparently not always achieved by a simple increase in firing rates to an attended stimulus, however, because firing rates to a single, high-contrast stimulus in the RF are often not increased with attention (2, 5, 7). As an alternative to increases in firing rate, one potential “amplifier” of selected neural signals is gamma-frequency synchronization (8–17). Small changes in gamma-frequency synchronization with attention might lead to pronounced firing-rate changes at subsequent stages (10, 18). Indeed, it was recently reported that neurons in monkey somatosensory cortex showed stronger synchronization during a tactile task than during a visual task, which was presumably caused by increased attention to the tactile stimulus in the tactile task (19). However, it is not clear whether the enhanced synchronization was present throughout the somatosensory system or whether it was restricted to those neurons processing the relevant tactile stimuli. To be useful in selective visual attention, enhanced synchronization would need to be confined to neurons activated by the features of attended stimuli, sparing neurons activated by distracters.

We recorded both spikes from small clusters of neurons (multi-unit activity) and local field potentials (LFPs) simultaneously from multiple V4 sites with overlapping receptive fields (RFs) (20). The monkey fixated a central spot, and after a short delay, two stimuli were presented at equal eccentricity, one inside and one outside the RFs (Fig. 1C). On separate trials, the monkey's attention was directed to either stimulus location (21), and we compared neuronal activity between the two attention conditions. We refer to the condition with attention into the RF as “with attention,” always implicitly comparing with identical sensory conditions but with attention outside the RF.

Figure 1

Attentional modulation of oscillatory synchronization between spikes and LFP from two separate electrodes. Raw stimulus–driven LFP and multi-unit activity with attention outside the RF (A) and into the RF (B). (C) RFs (not visible to monkey; green: spike recording site, yellow: LFP recording site); fixation point and grating stimuli are to scale. The RFs for both recording sites were determined from the multi-unit activity and included only one of the two stimuli. In separate trials, this stimulus was either attended or ignored. Data are from 300 correct trials per attention condition. (D) Firing-rate histograms. Vertical lines indicate stimulus onset and 300 ms after stimulus onset. Delay period was the 1-s interval before stimulus onset, and stimulus period was from 300 ms after stimulus onset until one of the stimuli changed its color. Delay-period STAs for attention outside the RF (E) and into the RF (F) and the respective power spectra (G). Stimulus-period STAs for attention outside the RF (H) and into the RF (I) and the respective power spectra (J).

One example pair of recording sites is shown in Fig. 1. The response histograms (Fig. 1D) show stimulus-evoked responses but no clear effect of attention, either during the prestimulus delay or during the stimulus period. To examine the effect of attention on synchronization, we calculated spike-triggered averages (STAs) of the LFP (11, 14, 22). The STAs revealed oscillatory synchronization between spikes and LFP from two separate electrodes, both during the delay (Fig. 1, E and F) and the stimulus period (Fig. 1, H and I). During the delay, the power spectra of the STAs (Fig. 1G) were dominated by frequencies below 17 Hz. With attention, this low-frequency synchronization was reduced (23). During the stimulus period, there were two distinct bands in the power spectrum of the STAs (Fig. 1J), one below 10 Hz and another at 35 to 60 Hz. With attention, the reduction in low-frequency synchronization was maintained and, conversely, gamma-frequency synchronization was increased.

To determine whether these changes in synchronization were precisely localized within V4, we made additional recordings with the stimulus outside the RF very close to the RF border (Fig. 2). Even with closely spaced stimuli, we found the same attentional modulation of synchronization as with the second stimulus far away (Fig. 2, C to E). In addition to these changes in synchronization, firing rates to the RF stimulus were also moderately suppressed when attention was directed to the surround stimulus (Fig. 2B), consistent with previous studies of competitive interactions between stimuli in V4 RFs (2, 5,6). Large firing-rate changes with attention occurred only with a competing stimulus very near to the RF border.

Figure 2

Attentional modulation of synchronization has high spatial resolution in the cortex. Conventions are as for Fig. 1 except that the stimulus outside the RF is only 1.5° from the RF border. Spikes and LFP are from two separate electrodes. Data are from 125 correct trials per attention condition. (A) RFs, fixation point, and grating stimuli. (B) Firing-rate histograms. (C and D) STAs for stimulus period and (E) the respective power spectra.

Across the set of recordings, attentional modulations of oscillatory synchronization were similar to the presented examples. We quantified the STA modulation by calculating the spike-field coherence (SFC) (14), which measures phase synchronization between spikes and LFP oscillations as a function of frequency. The SFC is normalized for spike rate and spectral power of the LFP and is therefore immune to changes in these parameters. The SFC ranges from 0 (complete lack of synchronization) to 1 (perfect phase synchronization). Computing the coherence between a point process (spikes) and an analog signal (LFP) is a special case, and therefore detailed information is given as supplementary material (24). We pooled data for the stimulus configurations in which the distracters were near to and far from the RF.

For the delay period (Fig. 3, A and B), low-frequency SFC was reduced by a median of 51% with attention (160 decreases, 23 increases; P < 10−6) (25). The delay-period STAs did not show clear gamma-frequency modulations (Fig. 1, E to G). However, statistically, the gamma-band SFC (35 to 60 Hz) increased by a median of 10% with attention (106 increases, 77 decreases; P < 0.02). Delay-period firing rates were nonsignificantly increased by a median of 5% with attention (35 increases, 26 decreases; P = 0.13). During the stimulus period (Fig. 3, C and D), low-frequency SFC was reduced by a median of 23% with attention (142 decreases, 65 increases; P < 10−6), whereas gamma-frequency SFC increased by a median of 19% (167 increases, 40 decreases; P < 10−6). Firing rates were enhanced by a median of 16% with attention (68 increases, one decrease; P < 10−6). Attention affected the normalized power spectrum of the raw LFP essentially in the same way as the SFC.

Figure 3

Population measures of attentional effects on the SFC. Scatter plots compare attentional effects on low- and gamma-frequency SFC and on firing rates. Each dot represents one pair of recording sites. The x- and y-axis values are attentional indices defined as AI(P) = [P(in) − P(out)]/[P(in) + P(out)], with P being one of the three parameters under study: low-frequency synchronization (L), gamma-frequency synchronization (G), and firing rates (R). P(in) is the value of the parameter with attention directed into the RF, and P(out), with attention directed outside the RF. (A and B) Activity from the 1-s delay period before stimulus onset. (C and D) Activity from the stimulus period.

The above analysis of the sustained response excluded the first 300 ms after stimulus onset to avoid response-onset transients (22). We separately analyzed the poststimulus time course of firing rates and LFP. For the recording site shown as an example inFig. 4B, attention did not affect the mean firing rate until about 420 ms after stimulus onset, consistent with other recent studies in which a single high-contrast stimulus in the RF was used (26, 27). By contrast, synchronization was modulated by attention very early in the response. STAs for the 100-ms period after response onset (starting 50 ms after stimulus onset) contained large low-frequency modulations with superimposed gamma-frequency modulations (Fig. 4D). The low-frequency (10 Hz) synchronization was reduced by attention (Fig. 4E). Conversely, there was a smaller gamma-frequency peak at around 65 Hz that was enhanced by attention (Fig. 4, F and G). Both the visual evoked potential (VEP) (Fig. 4A) and the spike histogram (Fig. 4B) contained strong stimulus-locked gamma-frequency oscillations in the first 100 ms of the response (Fig. 4C). Thus, this very early gamma-frequency synchronization was at least partially locked to stimulus onset (28), whereas oscillatory synchronization during the later, sustained visual response was not stimulus locked.

Figure 4

Attention effects in early response. Data are from 300 correct trials per attention condition. VEPs (A) and spike histograms (B) from two separate electrodes as a function of time after stimulus onset. Vertical lines indicate the time period for which STAs (D and F) were calculated. The modulation of firing rate by attention starts only at about 420 ms after stimulus onset. From 50 to 150 ms after stimulus onset, there are stimulus-locked gamma-frequency oscillations in firing rate synchronized with LFP fluctuations. Gamma-frequency oscillations are shown in detail (C) with the LFP filtered (40 to 90 Hz) and vertical lines indicating peaks of the rhythmic population activity. (D) STAs for 50 to 150 ms after stimulus onset and (E) the respective power spectra. (F) The STA from (D), filtered (40 to 90 Hz), and (G) the respective part of the power spectrum.

Similar observations were made across the population. Attention did not modulate mean firing rates in the period from 50 to 150 ms after stimulus onset (median decrease, 0.5%; 32 decreases, 29 increases;P = 0.35), and significant sustained attentional effects on mean firing rate did not begin until about 450 ms (29). By contrast, low-frequency SFC in the 50- to 150-ms period was reduced by a median of 8% (108 decreases, 75 increases;P < 0.01) with attention, whereas gamma-frequency (40 to 90 Hz) synchronization was enhanced by a median of 16% (114 increases, 69 decreases; P < 0.0005). VEPs showed low-frequency power in the 50- to 150-ms period reduced by a median of 12% (45 decreases, 19 increases; P < 0.001) with attention, whereas gamma-frequency power was increased by a median of 19% (48 decreases, 16 increases; P < 0.00005). Spike histograms showed a median 15% increase in gamma-frequency power with attention (38 increases, 23 decreases; P < 0.05) but only a weak tendency for reduced low-frequency power (−2%; 33 decreases, 28 increases; P = 0.26).

In summary, attention increased gamma frequency and reduced low-frequency synchronization of V4 neurons representing the behaviorally relevant stimulus. This held true even during the delay period and in the first few hundred milliseconds after response onset, when firing rates were not affected. Gamma-frequency synchronization has been found in visual cortex in the absence of selective attention (8, 17) and can be enhanced by brainstem stimulation (30), presumably via cholinergic pathways (31). However, the mechanisms that mediate the effects of selective visual attention presented here are not yet clear. Although attention increased gamma frequency and reduced low-frequency synchronization among the large majority of affected neurons, we did find cases with opposite effects. This raises the interesting possibility that attention actually sets a specific synchronization pattern among the affected neurons.

The observed changes in synchronization may enhance the impact of the affected neurons on postsynaptic targets. Gamma-frequency synchronization causes spikes to coincide within 10 ms (half the cycle length of ≈20 ms), enhancing their impact on postsynaptic neurons (32, 33). Low-frequency desynchronization may also enhance postsynaptic efficacy by reducing spike co-occurrence within 50 to 100 ms, thereby avoiding spike-frequency adaptation effects with time constants of 15 to 50 ms (34). Spike-frequency adaptation does not affect spikes correlated at gamma frequencies, because these spikes coincide in a shorter interval than the adaptation time constant.

V4 output neurons project to the inferior temporal (IT) cortex. In the RF of IT neurons, attended stimuli have an advantage over competing distracters (2, 3). Models that explain the competitive advantage of attended stimuli assume an enhanced efficacy of inputs from neurons at earlier stages activated by the attended stimulus (6, 10). One possibility is that synchronized inputs from V4 cells responding to attended stimuli activate not only excitatory IT neurons but also interneurons, which in turn inhibit IT cells that receive inputs from distracters. A similar mechanism might be at work in V4 itself, if V2 inputs to V4 are also synchronized for attended stimuli. If competitive interactions between neurons in V4 were restricted to cells with overlapping RFs, this would explain why responses to distracters in the RF are typically not suppressed in V4 when the attended stimulus is far from the RF [(2, 5, 7); see, however, (35–37)]. With attention, synchronized outputs from V2 or V4 will likely synchronize the firing of postsynaptic neurons in V4 or IT, respectively, thereby enhancing the impact of these cells on subsequent stages of processing, even when mechanisms such as response saturation minimize changes in absolute firing rates (26).

An increased impact of a neuronal population on its postsynaptic targets is equivalent to an increase in effective synaptic gain. Previous studies have proposed an increase in synaptic gain to explain a wide variety of behavioral influences (6,3840) on neuronal firing rates. Increasing the effective synaptic gain by modulating synchronization at precise locations in the cortex might therefore be a fundamental neuronal mechanism for amplifying signals that represent behaviorally relevant stimuli.

  • * To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail: fries{at}


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