Investigation of the modulation of spatial frequency preferences with attentional load within human visual cortex
Aghajari, Seyede Sara
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Performance in visual tasks improves with attention, and this improvement has been shown to stem, in part, from changes in sensory processing. However, the mechanism by which attention affects perception remains unclear. Considering that neurons within the visual areas are selective for basic image statistics, such as orientation or spatial frequency (SF), it is plausible that attention modulates these sensory preferences by altering their so-called ‘tuning curves’. The goal of this project is to investigate this possibility by measuring and comparing the SF tuning curves across a range of attentional states in humans. In Experiment 1, a model-driven approach to fMRI analysis was introduced that allows for fast and efficient estimation of population spatial frequency tuning (pSFT) for individual voxels within human visual cortices. Using this method, I estimated pSFTs within early visual cortices of 8 healthy, young adults. Consistent with previous studies, the estimated SF optima showed a decline with retinotopic eccentricity. Moreover, my results suggested that the bandwidth of pSFT depends on eccentricity, and that populations with lower SF peaks possess broader bandwidths. In Experiment 2, I proposed a new visual task, coined the Numerosity Judgement Paradigm (NJP), for fine-grained parametric manipulation of attentional load. Eight healthy, young adults performed this task in an MRI scanner, and the analysis of the BOLD signal indicated that the activity within the putative dorsal attention network was precisely modulated as a function of the attentional load of the task. In Experiment 3, I used the NJP to modulate attentional load, and exploited the model-based approach to estimate pSFTs under different attentional states. fMRI results of 9 healthy, young adults did not reveal any changes in either peak or the bandwidth of the pSFTs with attentional load. This study yields a full visuocortical map of spatial frequency sensitivity and introduces a new paradigm for modulating attentional load. Although under this paradigm I did not find any changes in SF preferences within human visual areas with attentional load, I cannot preclude the possibility that changes emerge under different attentional manipulations.