Entry Date:
December 16, 2011

Neural Mechanisms Mediating Visual Search

Principal Investigator Robert Desimone

Project Start Date August 2007

Project End Date
 July 2017

A typical visual scene will contain many different objects, few of which will be relevant to the task at hand. Thus, attentional mechanisms are needed to find relevant objects and suppress distracters. An understanding of these attentional mechanisms will ultimately help in developing a visual prosthesis for people with severe visual impairments, and will also help in developing treatments for people with brain disorders affecting attention, including ADHD.

The long term goal of this proposal is to not only uncover attentional influences on visual processing in the brain, but also to understand the neuronal mechanisms by which these effects occur. It is particularly important to understand how the attentional mechanism operates under naturalistic conditions, such as when we freely move our gaze to find objects based on their features (e.g. visual search, or finding a "face in a crowd"). Focus is on visual area V4, which is an intermediate processing stage in the cortical pathway important for object recognition. New results suggest that the attentional bias in favor of behaviorally relevant stimuli may involve not only changes in the average firing rate of V4 neurons, but also the synchronous timing of V4 activity. The first specific aim is to test hypotheses about the different functional contributions of the upper and lower layers in area V4 to feature-based attention in visual search.

The next aim is to establish the specific contributions of firing rates and neural synchrony to the behavioral performance of animals engaged in visual search. The third aim is to determine the contribution of prefrontal cortex to the attentional effects on V4 neuronal responses and synchrony during visual search. These aims will give us a better understanding of the functional anatomy of attention in the visual cortex, the contributions of specific biological mechanisms of attention to behavior, and the nature of top-down feedback to the visual cortex. The central hypothesis of the research program is that neurons in prefrontal cortex induce changes in both firing rates and neural synchrony in ventral stream visual areas such as area V4, and that these changes mediate the selection of relevant objects under naturalistic conditions of visual search. These hypotheses test novel ideas, but they are well supported by preliminary data, and we are well-positioned to test them since we have had many years of experience with the techniques.