Attentional selection predicted by reinforcement learning of task-relevant stimulus features weighted by value-independent stickiness

Attention includes processes that evaluate stimuli relevance, select the most relevant stimulus against less relevant stimuli, and bias choice behavior toward the selected information. It is not clear how these processes interact. Here, we captured these processes in a reinforcement learning framework applied to a feature-based attention task that required macaques to learn and update the value of stimulus features while ignoring nonrelevant sensory features, locations, and action plans. We found that value-based reinforcement learning mechanisms could account for feature-based attentional selection and choice behavior but required a value-independent stickiness selection process to explain selection errors while at asymptotic behavior. By comparing different reinforcement learning schemes, we found that trial-by-trial selections were best predicted by a model that only represents expected values for the task-relevant feature dimension, with nonrelevant stimulus features and action plans having only a marginal influence on covert selections. These findings show that attentional control subprocesses can be described by (1) the reinforcement learning of feature values within a restricted feature space that excludes irrelevant feature dimensions, (2) a stochastic selection process on feature-specific value representations, and (3) value-independent stickiness toward previous feature selections akin to perseveration in the motor domain. We speculate that these three mechanisms are implemented by distinct but interacting brain circuits and that the proposed formal account of feature-based stimulus selection will be important to understand how attentional subprocesses are implemented in primate brain networks.


Selective attention to auditory memory neurally enhances perceptual precision

Selective attention to a task-relevant stimulus facilitates encoding of that stimulus into a working memory representation. It is less clear whether selective attention also improves the precision of a stimulus already represented in memory. Here, we investigate the behavioral and neural dynamics of selective attention to representations in auditory working memory (i.e., auditory objects) using psychophysical modeling and model-based analysis of electroencephalographic signals. Human listeners performed a syllable pitch discrimination task where two syllables served as to-be-encoded auditory objects. Valid (vs neutral) retroactive cues were presented during retention to allow listeners to selectively attend to the to-be-probed auditory object in memory. Behaviorally, listeners represented auditory objects in memory more precisely (expressed by steeper slopes of a psychometric curve) and made faster perceptual decisions when valid compared to neutral retrocues were presented. Neurally, valid compared to neutral retrocues elicited a larger frontocentral sustained negativity in the evoked potential as well as enhanced parietal alpha/low-beta oscillatory power (9–18 Hz) during memory retention. Critically, individual magnitudes of alpha oscillatory power (7–11 Hz) modulation predicted the degree to which valid retrocues benefitted individuals' behavior. Our results indicate that selective attention to a specific object in auditory memory does benefit human performance not by simply reducing memory load, but by actively engaging complementary neural resources to sharpen the precision of the task-relevant object in memory.

Role of of the cingulo-opercular network in the maintenance of tonic alertness

The complex processing architecture underlying attentional control requires delineation of the functional role of different control-related brain networks. A key component is the cingulo-opercular (CO) network composed of anterior insula/operculum, dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, and thalamus. Its function has been particularly difficult to characterize due to the network's pervasive activity and frequent co-activation with other control-related networks. We previously suggested this network to underlie intrinsically maintained tonic alertness. Here, we tested this hypothesis by separately manipulating the demand for selective attention and for tonic alertness in a two-factorial, continuous pitch discrimination paradigm. The 2 factors had independent behavioral effects. Functional imaging revealed that activity as well as functional connectivity in the CO network increased when the task required more tonic alertness. Conversely, heightened selective attention to pitch increased activity in the dorsal attention (DAT) network but not in the CO network. Across participants, performance accuracy showed dissociable correlation patterns with activity in the CO, DAT, and fronto-parietal (FP) control networks. These results support tonic alertness as a fundamental function of the CO network. They further the characterization of this function as the effortful process of maintaining cognitive faculties available for current processing requirements.

Anterior cingulate signals errors of attentional control before prefrontal-cingulate inhibition

Here, we tested this prediction by recording cells in the dACC and lateral prefrontal cortex (latPFC) of macaques performing an attention task that dissociated 3 processing stages. We found that, across prefrontal subareas, the dACC contained the largest cell populations encoding errors indicating (1) failures of inhibitory control of the attentional focus, (2) failures to prevent bottom-up distraction, and (3) lapses when implementing a choice. Error-locked firing in the dACC showed the earliest latencies across the PFC, emerged earlier than reward omission signals, and involved a significant proportion of putative inhibitory interneurons. Moreover, early onset error-locked response enhancement in the dACC was followed by transient prefrontal-cingulate inhibition, possibly reflecting active disengagement from task processing.

Differential roles for attention subnetworks during reading

From the Schlaggar lab:

One set included bilateral Cingulo-opercular regions and mostly right-lateralized Dorsal Attention regions (CO/DA+). This CO/DA+ region set showed response properties consistent with a role in reporting which processing pathway (phonological or lexical) was biased for a particular trial. A second set was composed primarily of left-lateralized Frontal-parietal (FP) regions. Its signal properties were consistent with a role in response checking.

Oscillatory visual activity modulates spatial attention to rhythmic inputs

Using high-density electroencephalography in humans, a bilateral entrainment response to the rhythm (1.3 or 1.5 Hz) of an attended stimulation stream was observed, concurrent with a considerably weaker contralateral entrainment to a competing rhythm. That ipsilateral visual areas strongly entrained to the attended stimulus is notable because competitive inputs to these regions were being driven at an entirely different rhythm. Strong modulations of phase locking and weak modulations of single-trial power suggest that entrainment was primarily driven by phase-alignment of ongoing oscillatory activity.