Renewed Attention on the Pupil Light Reflex, Trends Neurosci.

In a recent study, Ebitz and Moore described how subthreshold electrical microstimulation of the macaque frontal eye fields (FEF) modulates the pupillary light reflex. This elegant study suggests that the influence of the FEF and prefrontal cortex on attentional modulation of cortical visual processing extends to the subcortical circuit that mediates a very basic reflex, the pupillary light reflex.

Pupil response components: attention-light interaction in patients with Parinaud’s syndrome, Sci Rep, 1 (7), 10283.

Covertly shifting attention to a brighter or darker image (without moving one’s eyes) is sufficient to evoke pupillary constriction or dilation, respectively. One possibility is that this attentional modulation involves the pupillary light response pathway, which pivots around the olivary pretectal nucleus. We investigate this possibility by studying patients with Parinaud’s syndrome, where the normal pupillary light response is strongly impaired due to lesions in the pretectal area. Four patients and nine control participants covertly attended (while maintaining fixation at the center of a monitor screen) to one of two disks located in the left and right periphery: one brighter, the other darker than the background. Patients and control subjects behaved alike, showing smaller pupils when attending to the brighter stimulus (despite no eye movements); consistent results were obtained with a dynamic version of the stimulus. We interpret this as proof of principle that attention to bright or dark stimuli can dynamically modulate pupil size in patients with Parinaud’s syndrome, suggesting that attention acts independently of the pretectal circuit for the pupillary light response and indicating that several components of the pupillary response can be isolated – including one related to the focus of covert attention.

Binocular rivalry in children on the autism spectrum, Autism Res,

When different images are presented to the eyes, the brain is faced with ambiguity, causing perceptual bistability: visual perception continuously alternates between the monocular images, a phenomenon called binocular rivalry. Many models of rivalry suggest that its temporal dynamics depend on mutual inhibition among neurons representing competing images. These models predict that rivalry should be different in autism, which has been proposed to present an atypical ratio of excitation and inhibition [the E/I imbalance hypothesis; Rubenstein & Merzenich, 2003]. In line with this prediction, some recent studies have provided evidence for atypical binocular rivalry dynamics in autistic adults. In this study, we examined if these findings generalize to autistic children. We developed a child-friendly binocular rivalry paradigm, which included two types of stimuli, low- and high-complexity, and compared rivalry dynamics in groups of autistic and age- and intellectual ability-matched typical children. Unexpectedly, the two groups of children presented the same number of perceptual transitions and the same mean phase durations (times perceiving one of the two stimuli). Yet autistic children reported mixed percepts for a shorter proportion of time (a difference which was in the opposite direction to previous adult studies), while elevated autistic symptomatology was associated with shorter mixed perception periods. Rivalry in the two groups was affected similarly by stimulus type, and consistent with previous findings. Our results suggest that rivalry dynamics are differentially affected in adults and developing autistic children and could be accounted for by hierarchical models of binocular rivalry, including both inhibition and top-down influences.

Touch Accelerates Visual Awareness, Iperception, 1 (8), 2041669516686986.

To efficiently interact with the external environment, our nervous system combines information arising from different sensory modalities. Recent evidence suggests that cross-modal interactions can be automatic and even unconscious, reflecting the ecological relevance of cross-modal processing. Here, we use continuous flash suppression (CFS) to directly investigate whether haptic signals can interact with visual signals outside of visual awareness. We measured suppression durations of visual gratings rendered invisible by CFS either during visual stimulation alone or during visuo-haptic stimulation. We found that active exploration of a haptic grating congruent in orientation with the suppressed visual grating reduced suppression durations both compared with visual-only stimulation and to incongruent visuo-haptic stimulation. We also found that the facilitatory effect of touch on visual suppression disappeared when the visual and haptic gratings were mismatched in either spatial frequency or orientation. Together, these results demonstrate that congruent touch can accelerate the rise to consciousness of a suppressed visual stimulus and that this unconscious cross-modal interaction depends on visuo-haptic congruency. Furthermore, since CFS suppression is thought to occur early in visual cortical processing, our data reinforce the evidence suggesting that visuo-haptic interactions can occur at the earliest stages of cortical processing.

Consciousness is more than meets the eye: a call for a multisensory study of subjective experience, Neuroscience of Consciousness, 1-8.

Over the last 30 years, our understanding of the neurocognitive bases of consciousness has improved, mostly through studies employing vision. While studying consciousness in the visual modality presents clear advantages, we believe that a comprehensive scientific account of subjective experience must not neglect other exteroceptive and interoceptive signals as well as the role of multisensory interactions for perceptual and self-consciousness. Here, we briefly review four distinct lines of work which converge in documenting how multisensory signals are processed across several levels and contents of consciousness. Namely, how multisensory interactions occur when consciousness is prevented because of perceptual manipulations (i.e. subliminal stimuli) or because of low vigilance states (i.e. sleep, anesthesia), how interactions between exteroceptive and interoceptive signals give rise to bodily self-consciousness, and how multisensory signals are combined to form metacognitive judgments. By describing the interactions between multisensory signals at the perceptual, cognitive, and metacognitive levels, we illustrate how stepping out the visual comfort zone may help in deriving refined accounts of consciousness, and may allow cancelling out idiosyncrasies of each sense to delineate supramodal mechanisms involved during consciousness.

Serial dependencies act directly on perception, J Vis, 14 (17), 6.

There is good evidence that biological perceptual systems exploit the temporal continuity in the world: When asked to reproduce or rate sequentially presented stimuli (varying in almost any dimension), subjects typically err toward the previous stimulus, exhibiting so-called “serial dependence.” At this stage it is unclear whether the serial dependence results from averaging within the perceptual system, or at later stages. Here we demonstrate that strong serial dependencies occur within both perceptual and decision processes, with very little contribution from the response. Using a technique to isolate pure perceptual effects (Fritsche, Mostert, & de Lange, 2017), we show strong serial dependence in orientation judgements, over the range of orientations where theoretical considerations predict the effects to be maximal. In a second experiment we dissociate responses from stimuli to show that serial dependence occurs only between stimuli, not responses. The results show that serial dependence is important for perception, exploiting temporal redundancies to enhance perceptual efficiency.

Distinct Neural Signatures for Very Small and Very Large Numerosities, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, (11).

Behavioral studies of numerical cognition have shown that perceptual threshold for numerosity discrimination depends on the range of numerical values to be estimated. Discrimination threshold is constant when comparing very small numerosities via the mechanism called subitizing, while it increases as a function of numerosity for numbers beyond that range governed by subitizing. However, when numerosity gets so large that the individual elements start to form a cluttered ensemble, discrimination threshold increases as a function of the square root of numerosity. These behavioral patterns suggest that our sense of number is not based on a unitary mechanism and is rather based on multiple numerosity processing mechanisms depending on the absolute numerosity to be estimated. In this study, we demonstrate neurophysiological evidence for such multiple mechanisms. Participants electroencephalogram (EEG) was recorded while they viewed arrays containing either very small (1-4) or very large (100-400) number of dots with systematic variations in non-numerical cues. A linear model that tested the effects of numerical and non-numerical cues on the visual-evoked potentials (VEPs) revealed strong neural sensitivity to numerosity around 160-180 ms over right occipito-parietal sites irrespective of the numerical range presented. In contrast, earlier neural responses (~100 ms) showed markedly distinct patterns across the different numerical ranges tested. These results indicate that differences in behavioral response patterns in numerosity estimation across various numerical ranges may arise from the differences in the first stages of visual analysis. Collectively, the findings provide a firmer ground for the idea that there exists a brain system specifically dedicated for numerosity processing, yet they also suggest that multiple early visual cortical mechanisms converge to that numerosity processing stage later in the visual stream.

Ensemble perception of emotions in autistic and typical children and adolescents, Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, (24), 51-62.

Ensemble perception, the ability to assess automatically the summary of large amounts of information presented in visual scenes, is available early in typical development. This ability might be compromised in autistic children, who are thought to present limitations in maintaining summary statistics representations for the recent history of sensory input. Here we examined ensemble perception of facial emotional expressions in 35 autistic children, 30 age- and ability-matched typical children and 25 typical adults. Participants received three tasks: a) an ‘ensemble’ emotion discrimination task; b) a baseline (single-face) emotion discrimination task; and c) a facial expression identification task. Children performed worse than adults on all three tasks. Unexpectedly, autistic and typical children were, on average, indistinguishable in their precision and accuracy on all three tasks. Computational modelling suggested that, on average, autistic and typical children used ensemble-encoding strategies to a similar extent; but ensemble perception was related to non-verbal reasoning abilities in autistic but not in typical children. Eye-movement data also showed no group differences in the way children attended to the stimuli. Our combined findings suggest that the abilities of autistic and typical children for ensemble perception of emotions are comparable on average.

Plasticity of Visual Pathways and Function in the Developing Brain: Is the Pulvinar a Crucial Player?, Front Syst Neurosci, (11), 3.

The pulvinar is the largest of the thalamic nuclei in the primates, including humans. In the primates, two of the three major subdivisions, the lateral and inferior pulvinar, are heavily interconnected with a significant proportion of the visual association cortex. However, while we now have a better understanding of the bidirectional connectivity of these pulvinar subdivisions, its functions remain somewhat of an enigma. Over the past few years, researchers have started to tackle this problem by addressing it from the angle of development and visual cortical lesions. In this review, we will draw together literature from the realms of studies in nonhuman primates and humans that have informed much of the current understanding. This literature has been responsible for changing many long-held opinions on the development of the visual cortex and how the pulvinar interacts dynamically with cortices during early life to ensure rapid development and functional capacity Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest involvement of the pulvinar following lesions of the primary visual cortex (V1) and geniculostriate pathway in early life which have far better functional outcomes than identical lesions obtained in adulthood. Shedding new light on the pulvinar and its role following lesions of the visual brain has implications for our understanding of visual brain disorders and the potential for recovery.