Serial, covert shifts of attention during visual search are reflected by the frontal eye fields and correlated with population oscillations

Buschman TJ and Miller EK

Neuron, 2009; 63 (3): 386-96.

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Attention regulates the flood of sensory information into a manageable stream, and so understanding how attention is controlled is central to understanding cognition. Competing theories suggest visual search involves serial and/or parallel allocation of attention, but there is little direct, neural evidence for either mechanism. Two monkeys were trained to covertly search an array for a target stimulus under visual search (endogenous) and pop-out (exogenous) conditions. Here, we present neural evidence in the frontal eye fields (FEF) for serial, covert shifts of attention during search but not pop-out. Furthermore, attention shifts reflected in FEF spiking activity were correlated with 18–34 Hz oscillations in the local field potential, suggesting a “clocking” signal. This provides direct neural evidence that primates can spontaneously adopt a serial search strategy and that these serial covert shifts of attention are directed by the FEF. It also suggests that neuron population oscillations may regulate the timing of cognitive processing.