The human visual system has a remarkable ability to successfully operate under a variety of challenging viewing conditions. For example, our object-recognition capabilities are largely unaffected by low-contrast (e.g., foggy) environments. The basis for this ability appears to be reflected in the neural responses in higher cortical visual areas that have been characterized as being invariant to changes in luminance contrast: neurons in these areas respond nearly equally to low-contrast as compared to high-contrast stimuli [1, 2]. This response pattern is fundamentally different than that observed in earlier visual areas such as primary visual cortex (V1), which is highly dependent on contrast [3-5]. How this invariance is achieved in higher visual areas is largely unknown. We hypothesized that directed spatial attention is an important prerequisite of the contrast-invariant responses in higher visual areas and tested this with functional MRI (fMRI) while subjects directed their attention either toward or away from contrast-varying shape stimuli. We found that in the lateral occipital complex (LOC), a visual area important for processing shape information [6-10], attention changes the form of the contrast response function (CRF). By directing attention away from the shape stimuli, the CRF in the LOC was similar to that measured in V1. We describe a number of mechanisms that could account for this important function of attention.
Bibliographical noteFunding Information:
This work was supported by NIH NEI EY015342 (S.O.M.), NGA HM1582-05-C-0003 (S.O.M.), the James S. McDonnell Foundation (S.H.), BTRR P41 008079, and the MIND Institute.