Spatial tuning shifts increase the discriminability and fidelity of population codes in visual cortex
Selective visual attention enables organisms to enhance the representation of behaviorally relevant stimuli by altering the encoding properties of single receptive fields (RFs). Yet we know little about how the attentional modulations of single RFs contribute to the encoding of an entire visual scene. Addressing this issue requires (1) measuring a group of RFs that tile a continuous portion of visual space, (2) constructing a population-level measurement of spatial representations based on these RFs, and (3) linking how different types of RF attentional modulations change the population-level representation. To accomplish these aims, we used fMRI to characterize the responses of thousands of voxels in retinotopically organized human cortex. First, we found that the response modulations of voxel RFs (vRFs) depend on the spatial relationship between the RF center and the visual location of the attended target. Second, we used two analyses to assess the spatial encoding quality of a population of voxels. We found that attention increased fine spatial discriminability and representational fidelity near the attended target. Third, we linked these findings by manipulating the observed vRF attentional modulations and recomputing our measures of the fidelity of population codes. Surprisingly, we discovered that attentional enhancements of population-level representations largely depend on position shifts of vRFs, rather than changes in size or gain. Our data suggest that position shifts of single RFs are a principal mechanism by which attention enhances population-level representations in visual cortex.
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