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Stefano Baldassi

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Stefano Baldassi

Research Scientist, University of Florence


  • Email: stefano.baldassi (AT) unifi.it
  • Telephone:  +39 050 3153175

Research laboratories

  • CNR Institute of Neuroscience, Pisa
  • Department of Psychology, University of Florence

currently @ Stanford University, Dep. of Psychology, Stanford, CA, USA

Current research and interests

  • Attention
  • Visual search
  • Perceptual decisions
  • Attention and reward
  • Visual integration
  • Multi-sensory perception
  • Perception of time
  • Autism
  • Perceptual processes in sport

Recent Publications


2011 (back to top)

Pascucci, D., Megna, N., Panichi, M. & Baldassi, S. (2011). Acoustic cues to visual detection: a classification image study,J Vis, 6 (11), PDF

A non-informative sound is known to improve contrast detection thresholds for a synchronous visual target (M. Lippert, N. K. Logothetis, & C. Kayser, 2007). We investigated the spatio-temporal characteristics of the mechanisms underlying this crossmodal effect by using a classification image paradigm specifically suited to investigate perceptual templates across both space and time (P. Neri & D. J. Heeger, 2002). A bright bar was embedded in 2D (space-time) dynamic noise and observers were asked to detect its presence in both unimodal (only visual) and bimodal (audio-visual) conditions. Classification image analysis was performed and the 1st and 2nd order kernels were derived. Our results show that the cross-modal facilitation of detection consists in a reduction of activity of the early mechanisms elicited by the onset of the stimulation and not directly involved in the identification of the target. In fact, the sound sharpens the 2nd order kernels (involved in target detection) by suppressing the activation preceding the target, whereas it does not influence the 1st order kernels. These data suggest that the sound affects some non-linear process involved with the detection of a visual stimulus by, decreasing the activity of contrast energy filters temporally uncorrelated with the target, hence reducing temporal uncertainty.

Baldassi, S. & Simoncini, C. (2011). Reward sharpens orientation coding independently of attention,Front Neurosci, (5), 13. PDF

It has long been known that rewarding improves performance. However it is unclear whether this is due to high level modulations in the output modules of associated neural systems or due to low level mechanisms favoring more "generous" inputs? Some recent studies suggest that primary sensory areas, including V1 and A1, may form part of the circuitry of reward-based modulations, but there is no data indicating whether reward can be dissociated from attention or cross-trial forms of perceptual learning. Here we address this issue with a psychophysical dual task, to control attention, while perceptual performance on oriented targets associated with different levels of reward is assessed by measuring both orientation discrimination thresholds and behavioral tuning functions for tilt values near threshold. We found that reward, at any rate, improved performance. However, higher reward rates showed an improvement of orientation discrimination thresholds by about 50% across conditions and sharpened behavioral tuning functions. Data were unaffected by changing the attentional load and by dissociating the feature of the reward cue from the task-relevant feature. These results suggest that reward may act within the span of a single trial independently of attention by modulating the activity of early sensory stages through a improvement of the signal-to-noise ratio of task-relevant channels.

2010 (back to top)

Toscani, M., Marzi, T., Righi, S., Viggiano, M. P. & Baldassi, S. (2010). Alpha waves: a neural signature of visual suppression,Exp Brain Res, 3-4 (207), 213-219. PDF

Alpha waves are traditionally considered a passive consequence of the lack of stimulation of sensory areas. However, recent results have challenged this view by showing a modulation of alpha activity in cortical areas representing unattended information during active tasks. These data have led us to think that alpha waves would support a 'gating function' on sensorial stimulation that actively inhibits unattended information in attentional tasks. Visual suppression occurring during a saccade and blink entails an inhibition of incoming visual information, and it seems to occur at an early processing stage. In this study, we hypothesized that the neural mechanism through which the visual system exerts this inhibition is the active imposition of alpha oscillations in the occipital cortex, which in turn predicts an increment of alpha amplitude during a visual suppression phenomena. We measured visual suppression occurring during short closures of the eyelids, a situation well suited for EEG recordings and stimulated the retinae with an intra-oral light administered through the palate. In the behavioral experiment, detection thresholds were measured with eyes steady open and steady closed, showing a reduction of sensitivity in the latter case. In the EEG recordings performed under identical conditions we found stronger alpha activity with closed eyes. Since the stimulation does not depend on whether the eyes were open or closed, we reasoned that this should be a central effect, probably due to a functional role of alpha oscillation in agreement with the 'gating function' theory.

Paci, M., Matulli, G., Baccini, M., Rinaldi, L. A. & Baldassi, S. (2010). Reported quality of randomized controlled trials in neglect rehabilitation,Neurol Sci, 2 (31), 159-163. PDF

The aim of this study is to assess the reported quality of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) on the effectiveness of neglect rehabilitation using a standardized scale. A search of seven electronic databases was carried out. Selected articles were scored using the PEDro scale and classified as high or low quality study both with the original cut off of 6 and a modified cut off of 5. A linear regression analysis between year of publication and quality rate was used to test whether the quality of the studies improved with time. A total of 18 RCTs were selected. Six articles (33.3%) and 10 articles (55.56%) were classified as having high quality when the original cut off or the modified cut off of the PEDro scale were used, respectively. Analysis shows no time-related changes in PEDro scores. The results show that reported quality is moderate for RCTs in neglect rehabilitation.

2009 (back to top)

Burr, D. C., Baldassi, S., Morrone, M. C. & Verghese, P. (2009). Pooling and segmenting motion signals,Vision Res, 10 (49), 1065-1072. PDF

Humans are extremely sensitive to visual motion, largely because local motion signals can be integrated over a large spatial region. On the other hand, summation is often not advantageous, for example when segmenting a moving stimulus against a stationary or oppositely moving background. In this study we show that the spatial extent of motion integration is not compulsory, but is subject to voluntary attentional control. Measurements of motion coherence sensitivity with summation and search paradigms showed that human observers can combine motion signals from cued regions or patches in an optimal manner, even when the regions are quite distinct and remote from each other. Further measurements of contrast sensitivity reinforce previous studies showing that motion integration is preceded by a local analysis akin to contrast thresholding (or intrinsic uncertainty). The results were well modelled by two standard signal-detection-theory models.

Pei, F., Baldassi, S., Procida, G., Igliozzi, R., Tancredi, R., Muratori, F., et al. (2009). Neural correlates of texture and contour integration in children with autism spectrum disorders,Vision Res, 16 (49), 2140-2150. PDF

In this study, we have used an electrophysiological paradigm to investigate the neural correlates of the visual integration of local signals across space to generate global percepts in a group of low functioning autistic kids. We have analyzed the amplitude of key harmonics of the Visual Evoked Potentials (VEPs) recorded while participants observed orientation-based texture and contour stimuli, forming coherent global patterns, alternating with visual patterns in which the same number of local elements were randomly oriented in order to loose any globally organized feature. Comparing the results of the clinical sample with those obtained in an age-matched control group, we have observed that in the texture conditions the 1st and 3rd harmonics, containing signature of global form processing (Norcia, Pei, Bonneh, Hou, Sampath, & Pettet, 2005), were present in the control group, while in the experimental group only the 1st harmonic was present. In the Contour condition the 1st harmonic was not present for both groups while the 3rd harmonic was significantly present in the control group but absent in the group with autism. Moreover, the amount of organization required to elicit significant 1st harmonic response in the texture condition was higher in the clinical group. The present results bring additional support to the idea that texture and contour processing are supported by independent mechanisms in normal vision. Autistic vision would thus be characterized by a preserved, perhaps weaker texture mechanism, possibly mediated by feedback interactions between visual areas, and by a disfunction of the mechanism supporting contour processing, possibly mediated by long-range intra-cortical connections. Within this framework, the residual ability to detect contours shown in psychophysical studies could be due to the contribution of the texture mechanism to contour processing.

Baldassi, S., Pei, F., Megna, N., Recupero, G., Viespoli, M., Igliozzi, R., et al. (2009). Search superiority in autism within, but not outside the crowding regime,Vision Res, 16 (49), 2151-2156. PDF

Visual cognition of observers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) seems to show an unbalance between the complementary functions of integration and segregation. This study uses visual search and crowding paradigms to probe the relative ability of children with autism, compared to normal developments children, to extract individual targets from cluttered backgrounds both within and outside the crowding regime. The data show that standard search follows the same pattern in the ASD and control groups with a strong effect of the set size that is substantially weakened by cueing the target location with a synchronous spatial cue. On the other hand, the crowding effect of eight flankers surrounding a small peripheral target is virtually absent in the clinical sample, indicating a superior ability to segregate cluttered visual items. This data, along with evidence of an impairment to the neural system for binding contours in ASD, bring additional support to the general idea of a shift of the trade-off between integration and segregation toward the latter. More specifically, they show that when discriminability is balanced across conditions, an advantage in odd-man out tasks is evident in ASD observers only within the crowding regime, when binding mechanism might get compulsorily triggered in normal observers.

2008 (back to top)

Tinelli, F., Pei, F., Guzzetta, A., Bancale, A., Mazzotti, S., Baldassi, S., et al. (2008). The assessment of visual acuity in children with periventricular damage: a comparison of behavioural and electrophysiological techniques,Vision Res, 10 (48), 1233-1241. PDF

It has been controversial whether electrophysiology offers better precision than behavioural techniques in measuring visual acuity in children with brain damage. We investigated the concordance between sweep VEPs and Acuity Cards (AC) in 29 children with periventricular leukomalacia (PVL), the most common type of brain damage in preterm infants. An overall good correlation was shown but with relatively better behavioural acuity values. VEP/AC ratio was significantly correlated to corpus callosum posterior thinning. We propose that this result reflects the efficacy of the compensatory mechanisms following early brain damage which may differentially affect the two methods.

Gheri, C. & Baldassi, S. (2008). Non-linear integration of crowded orientation signals,Vision Res, 22 (48), 2352-2358. PDF

Crowding of oriented signals has been explained as linear, compulsory averaging of the signals from target and flankers [Parkes, L., Lund, J., Angelucci, A., Solomon, J. A., & Morgan, M. (2001). Compulsory averaging of crowded orientation signals in human vision. Nature Neuroscience, 4(7), 739-744]. On the other hand, a comparable search task with sparse stimuli is well modeled by a 'Signed-Max' rule that integrates non-linearly local tilt estimates [Baldassi, S., & Verghese, P. (2002). Comparing integration rules in visual search. Journal of Vision, 2(8), 559-570], as reflected by the bimodality of the distributions of reported tilts in a magnitude matching task [Baldassi, S., Megna, N., & Burr, D. C. (2006). Visual clutter causes high-magnitude errors. PLoS Biology, 4(3), e56]. This study compares the two models in the context of crowding by using a magnitude matching task, to measure distributions of perceived target angles and a localization task, to probe the degree of access to local information. Response distributions were bimodal, implying uncertainty, only in the presence of abutting flankers. Localization of the target is relatively preserved but it quantitatively falls in between the predictions of the two models, possibly suggesting local averaging followed by a max operation. This challenges the notion of global averaging and suggests some conscious access to local orientation estimates.

2007 (back to top)

2006 (back to top)

Baldassi, S., Megna, N. & Burr, D. C. (2006). Visual clutter causes high-magnitude errors,PLoS Biol, 3 (4), e56. PDF

Perceptual decisions are often made in cluttered environments, where a target may be confounded with competing "distractor" stimuli. Although many studies and theoretical treatments have highlighted the effect of distractors on performance, it remains unclear how they affect the quality of perceptual decisions. Here we show that perceptual clutter leads not only to an increase in judgment errors, but also to an increase in perceived signal strength and decision confidence on erroneous trials. Observers reported simultaneously the direction and magnitude of the tilt of a target grating presented either alone, or together with vertical distractor stimuli. When presented in isolation, observers perceived isolated targets as only slightly tilted on error trials, and had little confidence in their decision. When the target was embedded in distractors, however, they perceived it to be strongly tilted on error trials, and had high confidence of their (erroneous) decisions. The results are well explained by assuming that the observers' internal representation of stimulus orientation arises from a nonlinear combination of the outputs of independent noise-perturbed front-end detectors. The implication that erroneous perceptual decisions in cluttered environments are made with high confidence has many potential practical consequences, and may be extendable to decision-making in general.

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