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Parietal blood oxygenation level-dependent response evoked by covert visual search reflects set-size effect in monkeys



Distinguishing a target from distractors during visual search is crucial for goal-directed behaviour. The more distractors that are presented with the target, the larger is the subject's error rate. This observation defines the set-size effect in visual search. Neurons in areas related to attention and eye movements, like the lateral intraparietal area (LIP) and frontal eye field (FEF), diminish their firing rates when the number of distractors increases, in line with the behavioural set-size effect. Furthermore, human imaging studies that have tried to delineate cortical areas modulating their blood oxygenation level-dependent (BOLD) response with set size have yielded contradictory results. In order to test whether BOLD imaging of the rhesus monkey cortex yields results consistent with the electrophysiological findings and, moreover, to clarify if additional other cortical regions beyond the two hitherto implicated are involved in this process, we studied monkeys while performing a covert visual search task. When varying the number of distractors in the search task, we observed a monotonic increase in error rates when search time was kept constant as was expected if monkeys resorted to a serial search strategy. Visual search consistently evoked robust BOLD activity in the monkey FEF and a region in the intraparietal sulcus in its lateral and middle part, probably involving area LIP. Whereas the BOLD response in the FEF did not depend on set size, the LIP signal increased in parallel with set size. These results demonstrate the virtue of BOLD imaging in monkeys when trying to delineate cortical areas underlying a cognitive process like visual search. However, they also demonstrate the caution needed when inferring neural activity from BOLD activity.

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