Phasic modulation of visual representations during sustained attention.
van Es MWJ., Marshall TR., Spaak E., Jensen O., Schoffelen J-M.
Sustained attention has long been thought to benefit perception in a continuous fashion, but recent evidence suggests that it affects perception in a discrete, rhythmic way. Periodic fluctuations in behavioral performance over time, and modulations of behavioral performance by the phase of spontaneous oscillatory brain activity point to an attentional sampling rate in the theta or alpha frequency range. We investigated whether such discrete sampling by attention is reflected in periodic fluctuations in the decodability of visual stimulus orientation from magnetoencephalographic (MEG) brain signals. In this exploratory study, human subjects attended one of the two grating stimuli, while MEG was being recorded. We assessed the strength of the visual representation of the attended stimulus using a support vector machine (SVM) to decode the orientation of the grating (clockwise vs. counterclockwise) from the MEG signal. We tested whether decoder performance depended on the theta/alpha phase of local brain activity. While the phase of ongoing activity in the visual cortex did not modulate decoding performance, theta/alpha phase of activity in the frontal eye fields and parietal cortex, contralateral to the attended stimulus did modulate decoding performance. These findings suggest that phasic modulations of visual stimulus representations in the brain are caused by frequency-specific top-down activity in the frontoparietal attention network, though the behavioral relevance of these effects could not be established.