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Background: There is at present crescent empirical evidence deriving from different lines of ERPs research that, unlike previously observed, the earliest sensory visual response, known as C1 component or P/N80, generated within the striate cortex, might be modulated by selective attention to visual stimulus features. Up to now, evidence of this modulation has been related to space location, and simple features such as spatial frequency, luminance, and texture. Additionally, neurophysiological conditions, such as emotion, vigilance, the reflexive or voluntary nature of input attentional selection, and workload have also been related to C1 modulations, although at least the workload status has received controversial indications. No information is instead available, at present, for objects attentional selection. Methods: In this study object- and space-based attention mechanisms were conjointly investigated by presenting complex, familiar shapes of artefacts and animals, intermixed with distracters, in different tasks requiring the selection of a relevant target-category within a relevant spatial location, while ignoring the other shape categories within this location, and, overall, all the categories at an irrelevant location. EEG was recorded from 30 scalp electrode sites in 21 right-handed participants. Results and Conclusions: ERP findings showed that visual processing was modulated by both shape- and location-relevance per se, beginning separately at the latency of the early phase of a precocious negativity (60-80 ms) at mesial scalp sites consistent with the C1 component, and a positivity at more lateral sites. The data also showed that the attentional modulation progressed conjointly at the latency of the subsequent P1 (100-120 ms) and N1 (120-180 ms), as well as later-latency components. These findings support the views that (1) V1 may be precociously modulated by direct top-down influences, and participates to object, besides simple features, attentional selection; (2) object spatial and non-spatial features selection might begin with an early, parallel detection of a target object in the visual field, followed by the progressive focusing of spatial attention onto the location of an actual target for its identification, somehow in line with neural mechanisms reported in the literature as “object-based space selection”, or with those proposed for visual search. Keywords: ERPs, C1, P1, N1, visual selective attention, visual striate cortex, V1, space and object parallel processing, shape processing time course, shape categorization * Correspondence: firstname.lastname@example.org Electro-Functional Brain Imaging unit (EFBIu), Institute of Molecular Bioimaging and Physiology, CNR, Milan, Italy Full list of author information is available at the end of the article © 2012 Zani and Proverbio; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited. Zani and Proverbio Behavioral and Brain Functions 2012, 8:6 Page 2 of 19 http://www.behavioralandbrainfunctions.com/content/8/1/6 levels of the visual system. A recent single-unit record- Introduction ing study by McAdams and Reid  in macaques In the literature on neural mechanisms underlying visual found, for instance, that attention was able to enhance selective attention, the theoretical view that attention is the visual responses of simple cells in the primary visual indeed unable to modulate V1 activity is so generally cortex (V1) in between 23.5-47 ms post-stimulus, with- acknowledged to be reported in available cognitive neu- out changing the underlying spatial and temporal struc- roscience handbooks. Several influential studies have ture of the receptive field. Still more recently, contributed to this view. For example, Martinez et al. McAlonan, Cavanaugh, and Wurtz  have published  reported no attentive modulation for the early C1 an authorative study stating that spotlight attention component, originating in the striate cortex, in a com- modulated the processing of visual signals before they bined ERPs and fMRI spatial attention study, but a facil- even reached the visual cortex by increasing neuronal itation of attended signals at P75 level within the responses in the thalamic lateral geniculate nucleus, and extrastriate visual cortex. The lack of an attentional by decreasing responses in the adjacent thalamic reticu- modulation of ERPs C1 led the authors to hypothesize lar nucleus, as earliest as in between 20-40 ms post- that the spatially-based modulation of the striate cortex stimulus. hemodynamic activity reported in the same study might Neuroimaging had also contributed to this matter: represent a delayed, re-entrant feedback from higher- indeed, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) order visual areas or a sustained biasing of striate corti- studies had shown a modulation of the primary visual cal neurons by the fronto-parietal network. In line with cortex during spatial attentional processing . Such a these findings, other electrophysiological studies modulation would occur in the absence of visual stimu- on visual selective spatial attention did not show any lation too [14,15]. Additionally, a meta-analysis of PET attentional effects before 90 ms in the amplitude of C1 studies on selective attention to non-spatial features component [2,3]. In a review of spatial and temporal (such as colour and size) reported a neural modulation properties of neural activity during visual selective atten- of several occipito-temporal areas including BA17 . tion  it was proposed that paying attention to spatial Other fMRI research contributed to explain separate location enhanced the activation of the extrastriate occi- mechanisms of attentional suppression for unattended pital areas (V2, V3/VP), as reflected by a greater ampli- inputs and of attentional facilitations for attended ones tude of P1 (80-130 ms) and N1 (140-200 ms) in striate and extrastriate cortex . components, generated in those areas. On the other Nevertheless, because of the inadequate temporal hand, the selection of non-spatial features, such as color, resolution of fMRI technique, it had not been possible shape, spatial frequency, orientation, direction of to understand whether the observed modulation of V1 motion, was not associated with a modulation of the activity occurred at the earliest latency level or was the earlier sensory responses, but only with later negative result of a delayed re-entrant feedback from the higher- ERP deflection, called “selection negativity” (SN) or N2p order occipital-temporal and frontal-parietal regions. responses (150-250 ms). Consistently, single cell record- At this regard, electrophysiological studies revealed to ing studies in monkeys had shown robust attentional be quite helpful in providing the time course of brain effects in the extrastriate occipital cortex, but not in the activation [2,18]. However, based on controversial find- V1 striate cortex [e. g., [5,6]]. In these studies, however, ings in the literature about the timing and the anatomi- stimulus material was much larger than V1 receptive cal level of the visual system at which attention affects fields, thus possibly explaining the lack of attention visual processing the debate on this matter is still effects in the primary visual cortex. opened. Indeed, an ERP study by Fu et al.  investi- In those same years, however, evidence from different gating the interaction of voluntary allocation of atten- methodological lines of research in cognitive neu- tion and perceptual load on the modulation of visual roscience had appeared hinting at the hypothesis that, processing found significant effects for the N1 (190 ms) unlike generally believed, visual attention might instead but not for the P1 (100 ms) or the earlier C1 (84 ms) have been somehow able to modulate the processing of component. Conversely, the combination of an involun- visual input already starting in the primary visual cortex tary allocation of visual attention and perceptual load [7,8]. For instance, spatial attention effects had been positively contributed to the earliest C1 attentional reported in the striate occipital cortices as indexed by modulation, and the involvement of visual striate cortex single-unit recordings [e. g., [9,10]]. Interestingly, in in two following studies by the same experimental more recent years further single-unit studies have also group [20,21], so that different neural mechanisms indicated direct influences of attention on the proces- of modulation of early sensory visual processing for sing of visual inputs already beginning at the primary voluntary and involuntary spatial attention have been visual cortex (V1), if not the lowest neuroanatomical Zani and Proverbio Behavioral and Brain Functions 2012, 8:6 Page 3 of 19 http://www.behavioralandbrainfunctions.com/content/8/1/6 advanced for giving reason of these apparently idiosyn- with previous findings obtained on a small group of par- cratic findings. Unlike these studies, an ERPs study by ticipants, and reported in a published meeting abstract Kelly et al.  provided evidence of a robust enhance- .Most importantly,arather recentsourcerecon- ment at C1 level elicited by voluntary spatial attention, struction study based on a high-resolution electrode using a cuing task in which standard and target stimuli montage (i.e., 128 channels) proved that the modulation were presented either at relevant or irrelevant locations of the C1 response, found, independent of the visual field, at the earliest post-stimulus latency (40-60 ms) across theupperand lowervisualhemifields. These during the aforementioned voluntary visual feature-con- attention effects, which source analyses attributed to a junction selection tasks, arose, beyond other areas, from generator in the striate cortex, started around 50-60 ms from the stimulus onset, and were not affected by the the BA17 sub-region of the cuneus, in the visual pri- visual fields, neither per se, or in interaction. Further- mary areas . more, evidence of a lower C1 negativity (i. e., greater Most interestingly, scant findings have also been positivity) under high attentional load, with respect to described of an ERP P1 smaller amplitude to feature- low-load, for distracters in the upper, but not in the relevant than to feature-irrelevant stimuli presented at a lower, visual hemifield during a voluntary attention neglected location [33,29], possibly lending an indicative task has also been reported . It is interesting that, timing to the aforementioned fMRI-indexed mechan- overall, these findings seem to hint at possible attention isms of attentional suppression and facilitation for unat- mode and/or stimulus-related differences in the C1 tended and attended input, respectively . modulation. Given the renown anatomical variability of striate cor- As for the object-based attention, in the pioneering tex (C1 generator), we investigated whether inter-indivi- study by Zani and Proverbio , ERPs to attentionally dual differences in VEP morphology might affect the relevant and irrelevant check sizes were compared; it nature and the polarity of C1 response and its atten- was found an enhanced lateral-occipital P90 along with tional modulation . While attention effects resulted a mesial-occipital N115 negativity to relevant spatial fre- in an increased positivity at both C1 and P1 level in a quencies. Attention modulation of the P1 response was sub-group of subjects that exhibited a prominent P80, later on reported for the conjoined selection of location shape relevance was associated with an enhanced nega- and spatial frequency features . Moreover, Proverbio tivity at C1 level and a smaller P1 component in the et al.  investigated stimulus orientation selection and sub-group that exhibited a prominent N80. Notwith- standing thedifferenceinthepolarityof sensory found attention effects at P1 (80-140 ms) post-stimulus response (either P80 or N80), it was therefore found latency. Later on, a C1 modulation by visual attention has been also reported for the selection of competing that spatial attention increased the positivity of evoked stimulus attributes. For instance, in a study involving potential, whereas feature-based attention increased the the selection of one of two transparent superimposed negativity of N80 response. surfaces, Khoe and colleagues  found a modulation It is interesting to consider that the C1 modulation by of a negative C1 (75-110 ms) and N1 (160-210 ms) visual attention has been also reported for the selection components for the relevant vs. the irrelevant transla- of the affective or the linguistic content of visual stimuli. tional surface within an attended space location. Most As for the effect of stimulus emotional value, Stolarova et interestingly, an influential study by Karns and Knight al.  found a difference in the modulation of C1 eli-  also reported a modulation of the early phase of C1 cited by aversive vs. neutral stimuli at 65-90 ms post-sti- (62-72 ms), besides of the subsequent P1 and N1, in an mulus, suggesting an involvement of primary visual areas intermodal spatial selection task in which the stimuli of in affective evaluations. This finding agrees with others in the sensory modality to be attended were all presented theliteraturesupportingthe notion that C1 response within the same attended location. (generated in the striate cortex) is modulated by the Further studies investigating visual spatial and non- affective valence of stimulus . Object content, spatial features-conjunction, voluntary selection present- matched for perceptual characteristics such as size, lumi- ing relevant and irrelevant spatial-frequency gratings at nance, and spatial frequency distribution, is also known relevant and irrelevant quadrants of the visual field to to affect the earliest sensory stage. For example, Prover- sizeable samples of subjects, so to obtain an high signal- bio et al.  obtained larger P1 to faces than equilumi- to-noise ratio, also indicated robust modulating effects nant familiar objects. Similarly it was found a larger P1 to complex IAPS scenes displaying humans rather than on the earlier C1 component, besides the subsequent unanimated landscapes . In addition, Proverbio and P1, analysing the C1 and P1 amplitudes either as mean Adorni  found larger C1 (i. e., 70-90 ms) to words area values centred over their peak latencies  or in separate 20 ms time spans in between 60-140 ms post- during an orthographic (letter detection) vs. a lexical stimulus . Interestingly, these ERP data are in line decision (word/pseudoword discrimination) task. Zani and Proverbio Behavioral and Brain Functions 2012, 8:6 Page 4 of 19 http://www.behavioralandbrainfunctions.com/content/8/1/6 In summary, there are at present several studies in the 130-180 ms) after stimulus-onset [44,45]. This procedure neuroscientific literature reporting an early timing also stands on the acknowledged tenets that the deploy- of attention modulation of C1 and P1 responses dur- ment of attention follows similar neural mechanisms ing spatial selection, attention to spatial frequency across the vertical and/or horizontal meridians [see e. g., [18,29,32], luminance, texture, emotion, workload, [22,25,29,30,46,47]], or that the effects of stimulus fea- although still unknown whether in interaction with tures (e. g., spatial frequency or colour) do not interact with the attentional relevance of the latter [25,30,32,46]. either voluntary or involuntary allocation of visuospatial Last but not least, for pursuing a good signal-to-noise attention [19-21,23,40], stimulation context , task ratio a sizeable sample of participants was tested. , and vigilance. Much fewer studies investigated sti- mulusfeaturesselection per se, and still fewer object selection. Among the few studies investigating shape Methods selection, Taylor  used simple geometric forms of Participants different colors as target stimuli finding that object- Twenty one (11 males, 10 females) unpaid university based attention can affect the latency and amplitude of students took part in the present study, approved by the the P1 component, as a function of task requirements. Italian National Research Council (CNR) Ethical Board, Purpose of the present study was to investigate how and conducted in accordance with APA ethical stan- early attention affects object processing, or, more speci- dards for the treatment of human experimental volun- fically, the earliest time and neuroanatomical level at teers (American Psychological Association, 1992). All which, in the progression of hierarchical levels in the signed a written informed consent for participating in visual system, attention might boost object processing the study in compliance with the indications of Declara- modulating on-line neural activity. To this goal, we tion of Helsinki (BMJ 1991; 302: 1194). Unfortunately, adopted conjoined space and shape selection tasks in three of them (i. e., two (2) males and one (1) female) which participants had to pay selectively heed to one had to be subsequently discarded from ERP analyses for target-category of familiar shapes sequentially presented excessive muscular and ocular artefacts. Hence, a size- intermixed with shapes from two other increasingly con- able sample of 18 volunteers remained. The mean age of flicting categories, balanced for luminance and percep- the 18 participants was about 22.5 years. All were right- tual familiarity, presented at a relevant spatial location, handed and had normal or corrected-to-normal vision, while at the same time totally ignoring these same cate- as well as normal hearing. gories as presented at an irrelevant location. We hypothesized that, had the visual striate cortex level of Stimuli processing, besides the extrastriate level, be directly Stimulus set comprised 672 pairs of stimuli, presented interested in the attentional selection of these complex vertically arrayed on the right or left visual hemifields of shapes (despite their small receptive fields and via a remote display monitor of a PC used for volunteers’ details analysis), this would have been manifested at the stimulation. Stimulus pairs were made up of B/W draw- scalp in a modulation of the earliest post-stimulus visual ings representing in a schematic but realistic manner 44 C1 response. different animals and 44 different familiar artefacts ran- Being our goal the investigation of the timing and domly combined across them (see Figure 1 for some neural level at which visual attention might start affecting examples). In this way, 168 pairs of animals, 168 object processing, and not the timing of object categori- zation per se, to increase signal relative to noise so to reliably measure the earliest C1, besides the later, P1 acti- vations, for each volunteer ERPs were averaged as a func- tion of the conjoined object and space relevance conditions independent of the target-category (animals vs. artefacts) and of the visual hemifield (left and right). Empirical evidence in the ERPs literature pertaining to object processing and categorization supports this choice. Indeed, a pioneering study indicated that a divergence in ERP waveforms to target- vs. non-target differential images, observed at frontal electrode sites only, did not develop earlier than about 150 ms after image onset . Later on, ERP signs of object categorization processes at Figure 1 Example of stimuli belonging to the animal, artefact posterior occipital-temporal electrode sites have also been or distracter categories. demonstrated, but not before the N1 latency range (e. g., Zani and Proverbio Behavioral and Brain Functions 2012, 8:6 Page 5 of 19 http://www.behavioralandbrainfunctions.com/content/8/1/6 homogeneous pairs of artefacts as well as 336 pairs of modulation in relation to voluntary and/or involuntary mixed stimuli (animals and artefacts) were built up. Ani- allocation of visuospatial attention [19-21,23]. This also mals, artefacts and mixed pairs had the same average made our space-based object selection task somehow luminance, as shown by an ANOVA performed on consistent with the simple-features conjoined selection luminance values obtained by means of a Minolta CS- task we used in previous studies, where participants had 100 photometer (p < 0.145; animals = 18.28, objects = to discriminate between spatial frequency gratings in the 17.81 and mixed pairs = 17.8 candles/m ). Half of the same bandwidth (e. g., 0.75 and 1.5 c/deg, or 3 and 6 c/ mixed-pairs showed an animal in the upper visual field deg) presented across the relevant and irrelevant quad- rants of the visual fields to perform their conjoined spa- and an artefact in the lower visual field, and vice versa for the remaining pairs. Stimulus pairs size were 6°22’ tial and non-spatial features selection [25,29,30,32]. 12’’ in height × 3°49’ 12’’ in width. They were flashed in In half of the blocks of trials the volunteers were the left or right visual hemifields beginning at 2°30’ of instructed before the starting of the attention-run to pay eccentricity from the vertical meridian, centered on the selectively heed and motorically respond to the animal- horizontal meridian. Stimulus duration was 250 ms with images category within the relevant spatial hemifield (i. an ISI ranging between 900-1200 ms. e., left or right), while ignoring the other two image- With these stimulus pairs eight (8) blocks of stimulus category-pairs within that hemifield, and, overall, all the trials were built up, each consisting of 84 trials of sti- stimulus conditions at the opposite, irrelevant hemifield. muli and lasting 2 minutes. Each block of 84 trials was In the other half of blocks the artefact-category-pairs subdivided in an equal number of 28 animal, artefact, hadto beattendedand responded atthe left orright and mixed category-pairs, half of which equally fell in hemifields. Therefore, although the physical stimuli the right and left space hemifields. Trials order changed remained unchanged, from run to run attention shifted randomly from block to block. In each sequence three conjointly across spatial location and image category- warning signals (i.e., SET, READY, GO) additionally pre- pairs. ceded the true stimulus trials, inviting the participants This way, independent of the image-category and to concentrate and get ready to perform the visual visual hemifield, and according to the attention condi- attention selection task. tion, the shape-category-pairs could be: relevant (L+) or not (L-) in spatial location, and relevant (S+), in between Procedure relevant and irrelevant (S+/-) or irrelevant (S-) in shape Volunteers sat on a comfortable armchair placed in an category. More specifically, in separate conjoined-atten- electrically and acoustically shielded, dimly lit, cubicle at tion relevance combinations the same images pair could be relevant both in location and shape category (L+S+); the viewing distance of 140 cm from the stimulation PC display monitor.Theywereinstructedtofixateacross relevant in space but completely irrelevant in shape (L at the center of the display and avoid any eye or body +S-); relevant in space but half-relevant/half-irrelevant movements. On each block of trials, the shape-pairs (distracter) in shape (L+S+/-); irrelevant in space and belonging to the three (3) different categories were relevant in shape (L-S+); irrelevant in space and comple- sequentially presented one at the time in random order tely irrelevant in shape (L-S-); irrelevant in space and either within the left or right hemifields of the stimula- half-relevant/half-irrelevant (distracter) in shape (L-S tion PC display monitor. Different conjoined selective +/-). Participants were trained to respond as accurately attention conditions were administered in randomized and quickly as possible by pressing a button to targets order for either the animal or artefact category-pairs with either the left or right index finger. Task conditions and the space hemifields. and responding hands were randomized and balanced We chose to use the attentional selection of “living” across and within subjects. vs. “not living” stimulus materials because the latter paradigm is much used in image processing and object EEG acquisition and analysis categorization studies [see ]. We added a mixed pair Electroencephalogram was recorded from 30 scalp sites category because we wanted that the participants by means of Ag/AgCl electrodes mounted in an elastic deployed their attentional resources onto the target cap. The electrodes were located at pre-frontal (Fp1, category at the relevant location through an effortful AFz,Fp2),frontal (F7,F3,Fz,F4,F8),fronto-central discrimination of increasingly conflicting features across (FC1, FC2, FC5, FC6), central (C3, Cz, C4), central par- shape-pairs categories, i. e., relevant (S+), distracters (S ietal (CP5, CP6), temporal (T3, T4), posterior temporal +/-), irrelevant (S-). Indeed, this addition introduced a (T5, T6), parietal (P3, Pz, P4), occipito-parietal (PO3, higher, or relatively higher, perceptual processing load PO4), mesial occipital (O1, O2), lateral occipital (PO7/ than in previous studies, as in some recent studies OL, PO8/OR) scalp sites of the International 10-20 Sys- investigating the influence of perceptual load on C1 tem. To ensure that eye-fixation was maintained, Zani and Proverbio Behavioral and Brain Functions 2012, 8:6 Page 6 of 19 http://www.behavioralandbrainfunctions.com/content/8/1/6 horizontal and vertical oculograms (EOG) were also also obtained and plotted in the figures for illustrating recorded by two electrodes placed below and above the our findings. right eye (VEOG) and two electrodes placed at the To further improve the signal-to-noise ratio, and to outer canthi of the eyes (HEOG). Discrete single trials- ensure that any possible “noise” in the ERP signals pre- related EEG sweeps were recorded on-line starting from ceding stimulus delivery across experimental conditions 50 ms before to 800 ms after stimulus presentation. could not affect the post-stimulus measures obtained, average ERPs were submitted to frequency-based band- EEG epochs were synchronized with the onset of stimu- pass digital filtering using low- and high-pass settings of lus presentation and they were digitized at a rate of 512 0.16 and 30 Hz, respectively, and with a roll off of 12 samples per second. Amplifier filters were set-up at 0.16-50 Hz for EEG channels, and 0.02-50 HZ for EOG dB/octave. While cleaning up ERP waveforms without channels. Electrode impedance was kept below 5 kΩ. producing any phase shifts, which are a characteristic of The reference lead was linked earlobes, whereas a pre- electronic filters, this band-pass filtering let freely pass frontal electrode served as ground site. only the frequencies lower than 30 Hz, that is, those EEG sweeps for each block of trials were stored to frequencies, and especially alpha (8 - 15 Hz) and beta separate digital files in the HD of a “master” PC. These (15 - 30 Hz) bands, which have been identified as files were automatically averaged offline using an arti- mechanisms by which selective attention is deployed fact-rejection procedure to discard epochs in which eye within vision [49-53]. movements, blinking, excessive muscle potentials or Early ERP components of interest were measured as amplifier saturation occurred. The criterion for artifact the mean amplitude in a given time window. In detail, rejection was peak-to-peak amplitude exceeding +/-70 the mean amplitude of C1 and P1 responses was mea- μV for EEG signal and +/-100 μV for EOG signal, and sured at mesial-occipital (O1, O2), lateral-occipital (OL, the rejection rate across subjects was overall about 5%. OR) posterior temporal (T5, T6) and occipito-parietal EEG sweeps related to incorrect behavioral responses (i. (PO1, PO2) sites in three (3) different, short time win- e., false alarms, FAs), mostly concerning the “distracters” dows (60-80, 80-100, 100-120 ms). Conversely, mean attention condition at the relevant location (L+S+-; see amplitude values for N1 component were computed at the “Behavioral results” Section below for further infor- mesial-occipital (O1, O2), lateral-occipital (OL, OR), mation), were also discarded from averaged ERPs. occipito-parietal (PO1, PO2) and posterior temporal Since, how indicated in the “Introduction” section, we (T5, T6) sites, centered on the peak amplitude latency range of 140-160 ms. Finally, the P3/N400 and LP (late sought to investigate the timing and neural level at positivity) components mean amplitude was measured at which visual attention affects object processing, and not the timing of object categorization per se, for each parietal sites (P3, Pz, P4), where they reached their max- volunteer ERPs were obtained as a function of the six imum values, in the 380-450 ms and 450-520 ms latency (6) conjoined attention-relevance conditions collapsing windows, respectively. data relative to the two target-image-categories (animals The aforementioned amplitude measures were sub- vs. artefacts) and the two visual hemifields (left and jected to multifactorial repeated-measures ANOVAs. right). Factors included: (1) location relevance: L+ (attended Then, for each volunteer, an ERP average waveform location), L- (unattended location); (2) shape relevance: for the half-relevant shape-category-pairs at the relevant S+ (target pairs), S- (non-target pairs), S+/- (mixed space location (i. e., L+S+/-) was obtained including, on pairs); (3) electrode site: as a function of ERP compo- average, about 103-106 trials, while average ERPs for the nent of interest; (4) hemisphere (right and left). Post- remaining attention conditions included, instead, about hoc comparisons among means were performed by 107-110 trials. In addition, grand-average ERP wave- means of Tukey or Newman-Keuls tests. The Gree- forms for “location-relevance” (i.e., L+ and L-) and house-Geisser correction was applied to compensate for “shape-relevance” conditions (i. e., S+, S-, and S+/-) per possible violations of the sphericity assumption asso- se were computed, the former including in between ciated with factors which had more than two levels. In 317-326 trials for the relevant location and about 321- this case, the degrees of freedom accordingly modified 330 trials for the irrelevant one, respectively, due to the are reported together with the epsilon (ε)and thecor- collapsing of the three (3) shape-relevance options, and rected probability level. the latter made up of about 214-220, 206-212, and 214- Topographical scalp current density (SCD - i. e., sec- ond spatial derivative of the potential) maps were com- 220 trials, respectively, due to the collapsing of the two puted from the spherical spline-interpolation of the location-relevance alternatives. Importantly, due to the surface voltage recordings between scalp electrodes at grand-averaging across the sample of 18 volunteers, grand-average ERPs made up of thousands of trials were specific latencies. These SCD maps were plotted as Zani and Proverbio Behavioral and Brain Functions 2012, 8:6 Page 7 of 19 http://www.behavioralandbrainfunctions.com/content/8/1/6 saturation-level-coded values of a three red-black-green allocation of early visual attentional processing well pre- colours-scale. ceding the motor output, this timing being provided instead, if anything, by ERPs only. Results Behavioural Results Electrophysiological Results A three-way repeated-measures ANOVA with target- In Table 1 a summary is reported of the significances of category-pairs (animals Vs artefacts), spatial hemifield attentional effects relative to shape and location rele- (left or right), and response hand (left or right) as main vance, or their interaction, attained in the ANOVAs car- factors was carried out on average reaction times (RTs). ried out on the mean amplitudes of the separate time This analysis indicated that the volunteers were overall windows for the earliest processing levels. Overall, these significantly [F(1, 17) = 61.669, p < 0.001; ε =0.98] significances robustly suggest an attentional modulation much quicker to respond to animals (M = 517 ms; SD = for both shape-based (especially at mesial-occipital elec- 16) than artefacts (M = 564 ms; SD = 18), and that trode sites (O1 and O2) and location-based (at more lat- neither the visual hemifield or the response hand factors eral sites) visual-selection starting at the earliest post- affected motor response speed per se or in interaction. stimulus latency, and, possibly, anatomical visual proces- A further three-way repeated measures ANOVA on sing levels. Although having different functional mean- the arc-sin-transformed percentage of false alarms (FAs) ings and neuroanatomical substrates, these conjoined was carried out with spatial location (relevant vs. irrele- attentional modulations were also found for the later vant), target-category (animal vs. artefact), and shape- latency ERP components, as summarized in Table 2. pairs (animal, artefact, mixed) as main factors. Because Below, a detailed report of these findings is provided as of the small or null amount of FAs obtained across con- a function of the progressing processing time. ditions, spatial-location factor levels (i. e., relevant vs. C1 (60-80 ms) irrelevant) for these behavioural mistakes included data C1 was of greater amplitude (more positive) to pairs collapsed across the left and right visual-hemifields. The presented in the relevant than in the irrelevant location ANOVA yielded a highly significant interaction among [’Location’:F(1,17) =6.171,p <0.024; L+=1.25 μV, the three factors [F(2, 34) = 1125.17, p < 0.0001; ε =1]. SD = 0.39 vs. L- = 0.48 μV, SD = 0.37], as visible in Fig- This interaction proved that FAs percentage was signifi- ure 2. The ANOVA also yielded significant effects for cantly increased by location relevance, it being overall ‘Shape’ relevance although in interaction with the ‘Elec- higher for the relevant than irrelevant location. In addi- trode’ factor [F(4, 77) = 3.21, p < 0.028; ε = 0.718], indi- tion, at the relevant location only, when artefact-image- cating that, independent of location relevance, shape- pairs were the target-category volunteers’ percentage of pairs relevance (S+ = 0.22; SD = 0.35) produced a more mistaken motor responses to mixed-image-pairs was negative C1 than shape-irrelevance (S- = 0.46; SD = higher (M = 5.69%) than when animals-image-pairs 0.39; p < 0.01), but not distracters, at mesial-occipital were the target-category (M = 1.78%). However, no dif- sites only, as can be seen from the ERP waveforms ferences were instead found within the relevant location related to these conditions, plotted in Figure 3. That between the almost negligible number of FAs obtained these object-selection effects already arose, in parallel for the animal- and artefact-image pairs (0.3% vs. 0.7%) with location relevance, at this earliest timing with this as a function of the opposite target-category selection. well-defined mesial scalp topographic distribution is also Overall, these behavioural findings strongly suggest strongly advocated by the time-series topographical that, as expected, at this late processing level the volun- mapping of Figure 4A. Conversely, there was no differ- teers conjointly deployed visual attention processing ence between C1 to targets and distracters (S+/- = 0.21; resources onto the salient target-category within the SD = 0.37). relevant spatial location mostly neglecting visual input C1wasmorepositiveoverthe rightthanlefthemi- from the irrelevant location. In our view, they also sug- sphere (’Hemisphere’: F(1, 17) = 6.02, p < 0.039; LH = gest that the volunteers focused their attentional 1.09 μV, SD = 0.29; RH = 0.54 μV, SD = 0.33). More- resources almost exclusively on the target-shape cate- over it was more negative at mesial-occipital electrode gory, hardly dispersing them onto the mixed-pair dis- sites (O1/2 = 0.30 μV, SD = 0.35) than at all other sites tracters, and still less on the shape-irrelevant category. (OL/R = 1.17 μV, SD = 0.36; T5/6 = 1.10 μV, SD = However, both these behavioural measures are not pure 0.22; PO3/4 = 0.97 μV, SD = 0.29), as proved by the signs of the visual selective processing because they post-hoc comparisons carried out for the significant include also signs of the processing stages required ‘electrode’ factor significance (F(3, 33) = 11.021, p < for response selection and execution. Hence, they do 0.000642; ε = 0.652). These effects can once again be not directly index the timing and the mechanisms of clearly appreciated by looking at the maps of Figure 4A. Zani and Proverbio Behavioral and Brain Functions 2012, 8:6 Page 8 of 19 http://www.behavioralandbrainfunctions.com/content/8/1/6 Table 1 Attentional effects for shape and location lateral-occipital (2.41 μV; SD = 0.66), and parietal-occi- relevance (in the occipital-temporal cortex) for the three pital sites (1.68 μV: SD = 0.62), especially of the right early latency processing windows considered. hemisphere, and most negative (N80) at the mesial occi- Time C1 C1 P1 pital sites (0.39 μV; SD = 0.62) as can be seen looking at Window (60-80 (80-100 (100-120 Figure 4B again. ms) ms) ms) P1 (100-120 ms) Significant Factors At this later processing stage, image pairs falling at the Location Relevance p < 0.024 p < 0.01 p < 0.003 relevant location yielded a greater P1 than those falling Shape Relevance × Electrode p < 0.027 n.s. n.s. at the irrelevant one [F(1, 17) = 11.1, p < 0.003; L+ = Location × Shape Relevance n.s. p < 0.01 n.s. 2.29 μV, SD =0.59vs. L- =1.01 μV, SD = 0.47]. This Location × Shape Relevance × n.s. n.s. p < 0.028 component was also sensitive to the interaction of Electrode ‘Location ×Shape ×Electrode’ (F(5, 91) = 2.65, p < Shape Relevance × Hemisphere n.s. n.s. p < 0.05 0.028; ε = 0.89). Post-hoc comparisons made evident Location × Shape Relevance × n.s. n.s. p < 0.05 that, despite a topographically distributed general trend Hemisphere at all posterior sites, the lower positivity shown by rele- vant-shapes in comparison to irrelevant-ones at the rele- C1 (80-100 ms) vant location reached significance at the mesial-occipital C1 amplitude was clearly affected by ‘Location relevance’ (L+S+=1.01 μV; SD = 0.70; L+S- = 1.61 μV; SD = per se (F(1, 17) = 9.01; p < 0.01) at this time window 0.63) and lateral-occipital (L+S+ = 2.28 μV; SD = 0.70; too, in that shapes falling at the relevant location (L+ = L+S- = 2.66 μV; SD = 0.63) electrode sites only, as 2.41 μV; SD = 0.67) elicited a greater positivity than clearly visible in grand-mean ERPs averaged across sub- those falling at the irrelevant one (L- = 0.91 μV; SD = jects plotted in Figure 5. 0.41), as visible in maps of Figure 4B. ‘Shape relevance’ A further triple interaction between ‘Location’, ‘Shape’ was also significant, but only in interaction with ‘loca- and ‘Hemisphere’ factors also reached significance [F(2, tion relevance’ [F(2, 29) = 6.01, p < 0.01; ε = 0.85]. 26) = 3.37, p < 0.05; ε = 0.77]. This interaction revealed These conjoined effects of visual attention are made evi- that the smaller mean positivity recorded in response to dent by the ERP waveforms plotted in Figure 5. As con- the shape-relevant condition (S+ = 2.06 μV, SD = 0.62) firmed by post-hoc comparisons, this interaction than the shape-irrelevant one (S+ = 2.53 μV, SD = 0.59) indicated that at this time, unlike previously, the visual for the relevant location was significant, independent of system deployed an increased neural processing onto electrode sites, at the left-hemisphere only (see Figure 5). the relevant shapes (S+ = 1.95 μV; SD = 0.83) than onto However, and most interestingly, the effects on P1 both the irrelevant shapes (S- = 2.98 μV; SD = 0.79; p < mean amplitude were also qualified by a significant two- 0.001) and distracters (S+/- = 2.67 μV; SD = 0.77; p < ways interaction between ‘Shape’ and ‘Hemisphere’ [F(2, 0.001), narrowing this differential deployment to the 29) = 3.33, p < 0.05; ε = 0.79], independent of location- relevant location only (L+). relevance. Further thorough analyses indicated that, The significance of ‘Electrode’ [F(2, 34) = 20.27; p < overall, the shape-relevant condition attained a smaller 0.000001, ε = 0.67] factor and the interaction of ‘Elec- mean amplitude response than the shape-irrelevant sta- trode × Hemisphere’ [F(2, 36) = 3.508, p < 0.022; ε = tus in the left-, but not the right-hemisphere. This left- 0.70] also showed how C1 was overall more positive sided lateralization for the processing of the shape-rele- (P80)atposterior-temporal(2.55 μV; SD = 0.56), vant condition at this latency range can be appreciated bothintheERPwaveforms drawninFigure3,and in Table 2 Attentional effects of shape and location the SCD mapping time series depicted in Figure 4A. relevance (in the occipital-temporal cortex) for the later- N1 (140-160 ms) latency time windows investigated. ’Location’ relevance affected N1, it being larger to Time N1 P300/ Late image-pairs falling at the attended than unattended loca- Window (140-160 N400 positivity ms) (380-450 (450-520 tion [F(1, 17) = 5.67, p < 0.031; L+ = -1.73 μV, SD = ms) ms) 0.58 vs. L- = -0.99 μV; SD = 0.59] (see Figure 2 again). Significant Factors Furthermore, and most interestingly, the effects on N1 Location Relevance p < 0.030 p < 0.001 p < 0.0000 mean amplitude also indicated a significant triple inter- Shape Relevance n.s. p < 0.001 p < 0.001 action between ‘Shape relevance’, ‘Hemisphere’ and Shape Relevance × Electrode n.s. p < 0.001 n.s. ‘Electrode’ [F(5, 81) = 2.32, p < 0.048; ε =0.78].This Location × Shape Relevance n.s. p < 0.002 p < 0.0004 interaction was due to a larger mean amplitude for the Shape Relevance × Hemisphere p < 0.048 n.s. n.s. shape-relevant condition than for the other two shape- × Electrode relevance modes at the mesial- and lateral-occipital Zani and Proverbio Behavioral and Brain Functions 2012, 8:6 Page 9 of 19 http://www.behavioralandbrainfunctions.com/content/8/1/6 the irrelevant location, with a much larger N400 to both shape-irrelevant pairs (S-) and distracters (S+/-) than targets (S+) at the spatially relevant location. Late Positivity (LP, 450-520 ms) This late-latency positive deflection was much greater to stimuli presented at the relevant (L+ = 4.5 μV, SD = 0.89) than the irrelevant (L- = 1.29 μV, SD = 0.60) spa- tial location (F(1, 17) = 25.31, p < 0.0000). Moreover, it was affected by ‘shape relevance’ (F(2, 34) = 8.68, p < 0.001; ε =0.99),withlargerLPtoS+(4.03 μV, SD = 0.72) than S- (2.99 μV, SD = 0.62) pairs, and intermedi- ate amplitudes for distracters (S+/- = 2.37 μV, SD = 0.65). An interaction of ‘Location × Shape relevance’ (F (2, 34) = 10.02; p < 0.0004; ε =1) pointed out shape relevance effects only at the attended location, where S+ elicited a LP of higher amplitude (6.81 μV, SD = 1.01) than both S- (4.78 μV, SD = 0.79; p < 0.03) and S+/- (3.15 μV, SD = 0.95; p < 0.0000), the latter not being, however, significantly different from S-. Figure 2 Grand-mean ERPs as obtained at left and right mesial- Discussion occipital, occipital-parietal, lateral-occipital, and temporal In this experiment we found that, besides P1 response electrode-sites as a function of shapes location relevance (i. e., L+ (80-120 ms) over the lateral-occipital areas, attention to and L-) collapsing data across participants, target-categories (i. e., animals and artefacts), and shape relevance conditions (i. e., S+, S both spatial and non-spatial features was able to modu- +/-, and S-). Note that here only the early-latency ERP responses late early sensory processing, as indexed by ERPs, at a have been plotted with an expanded time scale of 200 ms and latency and with a topography consistent with the ear- tick-mark progressions of 50 ms to bring out the earliness of the liest visual C1 response (60-100 ms) over mesial-occipi- modulation of sensory-related C1, P1, and N1 components by tal areas. This earliest mesial activity, relative to the first spatial selective attention. time window (60-80 ms), showed an increase in negativ- ity for shape relevant stimulus pairs independent of the leads over the left-hemisphere only. This interaction also location relevance. It must be admitted that we cannot be absolutely certain that these earliest attention effects revealed that, independent of location relevance and (60-80 ms) truly reflect the previously reported C1 hav- electrode, over the right-hemisphere the N1 mean ing its origin in the occipital calcarine fissure and invert- amplitude was, instead, more negative to both shape- ing in polarity with stimulation of the upper and lower relevant and shape-irrelevant pairs than distracters. occipital cortical banks of this fissure, since, rather than Overall, these data patterns are numerically epitomized having followed this stimulation mode, our lateralized in Table 3. stimuli fell centered over the horizontal meridian of the P300/N400 (380-450 ms) visual field and extended within both the upper and At this late-latency stage, location relevant pairs elicited lower quadrants of the left or right sides of the visual much larger P300 than irrelevant ones [F(1, 17) = 14.01, field. Despite this potential caveat, we believe that this p < 0.001; L+ = 2.780 μV; L- = -0.256 μV), as unequivo- earliest attentional modulation may actually reflect true cally shown by the ERP waveforms of Figure 6. This component was also affected by shape relevance [ F(2, C1 effects. Indeed, notwithstanding the uncrossed sti- 34) = 8.972, p < 0.001; ε = 1] with large P300s to shape- mulation mode, there is a remarkable consistency relevant stimuli (S+ = 2.09 μV; SD = 0.59), intermediate between the precocious increase in negativity in the pre- for distracters (S+/- = 0.39 μV, SD = 0.68) and large sent study and the increase in negativity of the earliest N400s for attentionally inconspicuous pairs (S- = -1.03 C1 sensory response (N80, 40-80 ms) for attended than μV, SD = 0.68). The interaction of ‘Shape relevance × unattended spatial frequency gratings presented across Electrode’ [F(4, 68) = 4.01, p < 0.001; ε =1] and the the four quadrants of the visual field found by a recent post-hoc comparisons showed that shape-relevance report . A LORETA source inverse solution per- affected more robustly ERPs at parietal than anterior formed on the difference wave obtained subtracting fre- sites. The further interaction of ‘Location × Shape rele- quency irrelevant from frequency relevant stimuli also vance’ [F(2, 34) = 5.94, p < 0.002; ε = 0.99] indicated identified the active sources of the early attention effects in the visual primary cortex (BA17), the lateral occipital that shape relevance was stronger at the relevant than Zani and Proverbio Behavioral and Brain Functions 2012, 8:6 Page 10 of 19 http://www.behavioralandbrainfunctions.com/content/8/1/6 Figure 3 Grand-average ERPs at left and right mesial-occipital, occipital-parietal, lateral-occipital, and temporal electrode-sites as a function of shape relevance conditions (i. e., S+, S+/-, and S-) per se. These ERPs were obtained averaging data across participants, target- categories (i. e., animals and artefacts), and shapes location relevance (i. e., L+ and L-). Scaling is the same as for Fig. 2. area (BA19), the superior parietal lobule (BA7), and var- rather than bring confounds to the debate on early ious dorsolateral prefrontal regions. In the light of the attention modulation, the present results also add on to consistency between the present earliest object-attention previous findings of C1 attention effects in the literature effects and the previous feature-related C1 attention by providing evidence that, besides stimulus features, effects in the crossed quadrants study, we believe that, attention to more complex targets too, such as B/W Zani and Proverbio Behavioral and Brain Functions 2012, 8:6 Page 11 of 19 http://www.behavioralandbrainfunctions.com/content/8/1/6 Figure 4 (A) Time series (pass = 5 ms) of topographical maps (back view) plotting the 3-red-black-green-colours saturation-coded surface scalp current density (SCD) values computed on the difference waveform obtained by subtracting ERPs to shape-irrelevant pairs (S-) from ERPs to shape-relevant pairs (S+), (B)Same time series maps as for A, except that SCD values were computed on the difference voltage obtained by subtracting ERPs to location-irrelevant pairs (L-) from ERPs to location-relevant pairs (L+). It is worthy of note that, overall, shape-relevance manifested as a negative SCD mostly concerning the mesial-occipital electrode sites, whereas location- relevance determined a strong positive SCD mostly concerning the lateral occipital, posterior temporal, and parietal electrode sites. drawings of familiar objects, can modulate the activation sensory processing, which will have to be answered by means of further research. of the striate cortex at the earliest level, thus probably enhancing the processing of objects local details It is interesting to note that shape and location rele- enabling the precocious selection. vance manifested in different polarities as the attentional The present data also showed an earliest effect of modulation was concerned: paying attention to object location relevance on sensors activity, in terms of an features increased the negative voltage, whereas paying increased positivity (P80) to location relevant pairs, attention to spatial location increased the positive vol- independent of their shape relevance or semantic cate- tage of both C1 and P1 components. These findings gory, starting as early as 60 ms post-stimulus, or earlier. support the notion that the space-based and the object- It is interesting that despite the use of complex shapes, based attentional mechanisms are partially anatomically this finding is highly consistent with previous findings and functionally segregated [54,55]. In agreement with by both our own [29,30,32], and other research groups previous findings [34,39,30,56,30], the present data bring [23,28] using tasks requiring a voluntary allocation of to light an intriguing dissociation: indeed, the ascending spatial attention and simple stimulus features adminis- part of C1 component was more sensitive to shape rele- tered across the horizontal meridian. The early timing vance per se at the mesial occipital sites, closer to the of this attentional modulation with reference to the visual striate area, while the descending portion of the post-stimulus onset is consistent with a source in the same component was more sensitive to the combined sensory occipital cortex, here unfortunately not directly interaction of the two features, as indicated by the inter- corroborated by the use of any source reconstruction action between shape and location relevance. And, procedure. It is also worth noting that, despite the con- indeed, it is possible that the initial portion of C1 com- sistency of the present spatially-based C1 modulation ponent might have a stronger striate component, whereas the second, later-latency portion of C1 might with that found in a study by Fu et al. , at least in reflect the later contribution of the extrastriate visual terms of early timing, the involuntary (or reflexive) nat- ure of spatial attention allocation requested by the task cortex, which is known to generate the P1 response, and used in that study opens some questions about this con- be responsible of its space-based modulation [57,19]. sistency, and the differential influences of voluntary and Overall, these findings suggest that visual selective atten- involuntary allocation of spatial attention on early visual tion is able to modulate neural processing of object Zani and Proverbio Behavioral and Brain Functions 2012, 8:6 Page 12 of 19 http://www.behavioralandbrainfunctions.com/content/8/1/6 Figure 5 ERP waveforms at left and right mesial-occipital, occipital-parietal, lateral-occipital, and occipital-temporal electrodes grand- averaged across participants as a function of the conjoined spatial and non-spatial relevance of shape-pairs (i.e., L+S-, L+S+/-, and L +S-, as well as L-S+, L-S+/-, and L-S-). Whereas C1 was of greater amplitude over mesial occipital sites, P1 response was larger over lateral occipital sites. Scaling is the same as for Figures 2 and 3. features independent of spatial processing, leading to the processing level, reflected at the scalp surface by N1 conclusion of a neuro-anatomical distinction of the component, as a result of the activation of brain tem- ‘what’ and ‘where’ neural pathways . A conclusion poroparietal-occipital (TPO) junction . An important theoretical issue to consider here is that that is strongly supported also by empirical evidence of a significant interaction between voluntary visuospatial our present findings clearly established that, as a result attention and perceptual load at target discrimination of the conjoined spatial and non-spatial attentional Zani and Proverbio Behavioral and Brain Functions 2012, 8:6 Page 13 of 19 http://www.behavioralandbrainfunctions.com/content/8/1/6 Table 3 N1 mean amplitude values (μV) and Standard selection required by our task, visual cortex responsivity Deviations (in Italics) recorded at the posterior mesial- (including V1 activation) was cued to enhance the ana- (mes-Occ) and lateral-occipital (lat-Occ) sites of the left lysis of target shape attributes at both the relevant and and right hemispheres as a function of shape-relevance irrelevant space locations, while simultaneously allocat- conditions. ing spatial attention to the relevant target location, from Hemisphere the earliest post-stimulus processing time. This run Left Hemisphere Right Hemisphere counter to the traditional views of visual processing Electrode Electrode regarding spatial attention as having a special status, Shape mes-Occ lat-Occ mes-Occ lat-Occ and spatial localization of visual input as preceding any Relevance feature- or object-selection carried out for the selective S+ -0.50 -0.32 -0.37 -0.18 exploration of the outer world. At this regard, however, 0.50 0.62 0.70 0.65 there has been an accumulation of empirical evidence S+/- -0.26 -0.12 -0.28 0.03 from visual brain studies in the last two decades that 0.54 0.65 0.72 0.71 supports the view that, on the one hand, the two selec- S- -0.26 -0.14 -0.40 -0.20 tion mechanisms may operate in parallel right from the 0.49 0.60 0.69 0.65 earliest levels of analysis, rather than being preceded by S+ = Shape-relevant, S+/- = Shape relevant and irrelevant distracter, and S- = a space selection, and, on the other hand, feature-direc- Shape-irrelevant ted attention might directly precede attention to loca- tion, as repeatedly demonstrated in visual search studies. Indeed, there is a straightforward consistency between previous findings of our own research group in studies aimed at investigating neural mechanisms of spatial and non-spatial features (i. e., spatial frequency) conjoined selection [25,29,32], and the parallel processing view. Furthermore, evidence from single unit studies in mon- keys demonstrated that object or feature-selection, rather than being preceded by a space selection, is centred “on line” on precise spatial coordinates allowing an “object-based space selection” [e. g., ]. Additional single unit evidence by Motter  and Treue and Mar- tinez-Trujillo  have indicated that attention may be allocated to non spatial features in a location indepen- dent manner. This finding has been confirmed in humans by means of functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) imaging by Saenz et al . As for the view of a possible precedence of feature-selection over the spatial selection, most fascinatingly combined event-related potentials (ERP) and event-related magnetic fields (ERFM) indexes of activations to task relevant features, starting about 140 ms after stimulus onset, independent of location relevance, have been reported in human volunteers performing a visual search task in which the spatial distribution of non-target items with relevant fea- tures was varied independently of the relevance of the location of the target. These activations were followed by a later lateralized response (the so called N2pc com- Figure 6 Grand-average ERP waveforms recorded at left and ponent) reflecting the deployment of attention to target right central and parietal scalp sites, as well as mesial-parietal location, which began at about 170 ms after stimulus sites, as a function of conjoined attentional conditions. Unlike input . More recently, the measurement of N2pc for previous figures, the waveforms have been plotted with a full during visual search tasks also revealed that there were time scale of 800 ms and tick-marks progressions of 100 ms to show the late latency attention effects. As can be seen, both P300 functional differences in the deployment of attention to and N400 were strongly modulated by both shape- and location- objects and space locations as a function of object- relevance (per se and in interaction), whereas LP was overall more related structural conformation of space location, in that strongly modulated by image-pairs targetness. attention was shifted to a cued location in anticipation Zani and Proverbio Behavioral and Brain Functions 2012, 8:6 Page 14 of 19 http://www.behavioralandbrainfunctions.com/content/8/1/6 of a target shape when the location was marked by a selection effects observed, the present N1 hemispheric placeholder object, whereas it was not when these cued asymmetries in attentional selectivity seem to suggest locations were devoid of the placeholders, thus indicat- that the left-hemisphere carries out a sharper sensory- ing a deployment of attention directly to objects . perceptual selective processing across attentional rele- It must be said that our C1 effects are somewhat ear- vance conditions than the right hemisphere. This mesh lier than both the feature-related response, starting at closely with the view of a predominance in attention selectivity of the left-hemisphere [e.g., ], in line with about 140 ms, and the N2pc effects (starting at 170 ms). the accepted cognitive model of the latter hemisphere However, it seems plausible that, inasmuch as the visual having a narrower attention focus and a more analytic search entails a larger, time-consuming set of neural processes underlying stimulus features detection, pre- attention strategy [68,69]. ceding stimulus selection and recognition, than our own Most probably, the late positive (LP) component, conjoined selection task, and, inasmuch as ERPs can reaching its maximum amplitude over the parietal sites, properly index the timing of neural processing, our ear- reflected the highest level of combined object and spatial lier-latency effects may possibly spring from the lack of processing, in terms of target selection and awareness, any previous search of object features location to com- as well as decision making processes. This component is ply with the spatial and non-spatial features conjoined likely to reflect stimulus categorization processes and selection task. the attentive effects due to the interaction between A further point deserving discussion concerns our shape and location relevance. The lack of any attentional findings of independent effects for object-features and modulation for shape-relevant stimuli at the irrelevant spatial location selection at the earliest C1 rising time location seems to point out that outside the focus of range (i. e., 60-80 ms), and of interactive effects of these spatial attention irrelevant stimuli are suppressed before conjoined features, already starting in the C1 peak and/ being processed at the highest cognitive level [at this or descending time range (i. e., 80-100 ms) and increas- regard see ]. ing as visual input attentional processing progressed in The finding that location relevance affected LP ampli- time, as reflected at the scalp by the later-latency ERP tude at parietal sites fully meshes with both the classic components. Most fascinatingly, these findings seems to electrophysiological reports of a larger late positive com- indicate that features-conjoined selection is obtained as plex (LPC) to attended than unattended spatial targets a result of concurrent operations of multiple, narrowing [e. g., [70,29]], and the parietal activations shown by blood-flow studies during the covert shifting of visuos- levels of task-related attentional selectivity having dis- patial attention [e. g., ]. However, activation of this tinctive properties and based on a progressively greater amount and a better quality of overall information same area has also been found in a feature conjunction about relevant input features, some of which at an search task , and in a divided attention task invol- higher order level than the C1 were here mirrored by ving global and local processing , suggesting that the trend of the relatively-late latency and late-latency this region is involved in more than shifting attention to components. a space location. In fact, it has also been demonstrated At the N1 level, the attentional effects not only that the right superior medial parietal cortex is involved reflected location-relevance, as reported by previous lit- in overt and covert attention tasks of object- and space- erature [65,29], but also object-features effects. The lat- based interactions . In agreement with these find- ter effects showed to be characterized by complex ings, our results of the N400 and LP components indi- attention-related hemispheric asymmetries. In fact, at cate an interaction of space and object feature the right-hemisphere, N1 was, overall, of greater ampli- processing over parietal and central cortex. In particular, tude for both the congruent shape-relevance (S+ and S-) N400component maybepossiblyconceivedasa mis- conditions than for the mixed one (S+/-), thus plausibly match response sensitive to the processing of semanti- reflecting the role of the right-sided ventral stream in cally incongruent stimuli . the categorization of familiar shapes  independent of There are other important theoretical issues to be attention selection, consistently with the findings of a considered here. Although the differences found across previous ERPs study  showing that the categoriza- the various shape-relevance conditions at C1 level in no tion effects between homomorphic, animal entities with way index object categorization processes per se,these faces and legs, and artefacts emerged at ~150 ms conditions being simply a reflection of the different degree of their attentional saliency, it has to be consid- (N120-180 ms) over the right occipital-temporal sites. ered here that, besides in attentional-relevance, the dis- Conversely, at the left hemisphere an attentional selec- tracter pairs (S+/-) also differed somewhat in terms of tivity between the relevant (S+) and irrelevant (S-) shapes was evident at the mesial- and lateral-occipital stimulus-category features from those of both the salient leads. Compatibly with the earlier left-sided P1 shape- (S+) and inconspicuous (S-) attention conditions. In our Zani and Proverbio Behavioral and Brain Functions 2012, 8:6 Page 15 of 19 http://www.behavioralandbrainfunctions.com/content/8/1/6 view, then, it is reasonable to believe that the significant effects - a larger response to pictures of faces than cars differences in neural processing levels found within the independent of shape versions - at latency stages earlier relevant location between the salient condition (L+S+) than 100 ms (80-100 ms), indicated by them, in their and the distracting one (L+S+/-), besides the inconspic- own terms, as “a very early P1 level”.However,alater uous one (L+S-), might indicate that the visual system is N170 component also showed to be larger for faces somehow able to distinguish,atafirstbasic, uncon- than cars, but for the intact shape versions only. Overall, they explained their early-latency P1 effects to faces as a scious level, between images of different semantic cate- brain response to low-level visual cues, namely the stee- gories already at the earliest sensory processing level. per Fourier amplitude spectrum (AS) of face images Indeed, objective evidence in the literature seems to support this claim. On the one hand, man-made cate- indicated by Keil , and their N170 effects as a scalp- gories have more energy in ‘cardinal’ (i.e., vertical and recorded reflection of a true face perception or categori- horizontal) orientations compared to natural categories zation stage. . On the other hand, animals have been indicated to That the visual system might give signs of distinguish- be more ‘homomorphic’ (i.e., they all have heads and ing between stimulus categories at the earliest 60-80 eyes that are generally round, and legs) than artefacts, processing latency range, as we found, does not abso- that tend to contain more rectilinear strokes . Addi- lutely mean that it has reached the complete recognition tionally, and most importantly, faces and man-made of the different stimulus categories at conscious level at objects naturally vary in their Fourier spatial frequency this processing time. Quite on the contrary, as sup- amplitude spectrum (AS), with a steeper spectrum ported by Rossion and Caharel , besides our own decrease for faces compared to natural images . findings, it may simply indicate that the system has Consistent with the latter evidence, proofs have also begun the selection of salient perceptual information at been provided that rapid image recognition can be an ‘entry’ level required, as a prerequisite, for detecting, biased by simply priming the amplitude spectrum infor- identifying, and categorizing objects by means of differ- mation [79,80]. All in all, these indications strongly sup- ent perceptual decisions, the latter being very probably port the view that the human brain may be intrinsically based on different, successive levels of accumulation of tuned to this low-level information characterizing faces salient information and different time scales. This would and body parts, thus facilitating rapid ‘homomorphic’ be consistent with both the views that basic-level cate- traits detection. gorization is an entry level of processing that precedes stages of categorization at other levels  very likely In line with all these indications, it is not unlikely that, carried out through feedforward processing , and despite the compensation for average luminance, size and other visual features, our animal and artefact cate- that conscious perception is possible only with recurrent gories too, besides the distracter pairs, still differed from processing of the stimulus input as advanced by Roelf- each other in all the aforementioned basic features, but, sema and colleagues [83,84]. Indeed, counter to tradi- in all prospect, mostly in their spatial frequency ampli- tional views of object visual processing evidence has tude spectrum. It is possible, then, that these basic stemmed that our visual system is able to categorize informational differences between natural and man- images of natural visual scenes at remarkable speed . made objects per se, may account for our early C1 At this regard, Kirchner and Thorpe  have most effects for animals Vs artefacts discrimination. At these impressively demonstrated that the participants of their regards, far from being surprising, the attention effect study were able to perform a speeded saccade toward found as earliest as 60 millisecond in C1 is, in our view, one out of two pictures presented, which contained an absolutely consistent with the findings of earliest atten- animal target, as fast as 120 ms post-stimulation. On the tional effects by both our own [29,30,32] and other other hand, counter to traditional views of object detec- groups’ previous studies involving single features, such tion and categorization, a parallel line of research over as spatial frequencies, spatial attention, emotional faces, the past few years has also shown that objects can be etc., differing between a target and distracters. often successfully detected without being successfully Most importantly, strong support to the aforemen- categorized [e. g., [87,88]]. Besides, other studies have tioned claims derives from most recent ERPs experi- shown that stimulus material manipulations, as stimulus mental evidence. Indeed, to investigate how fast the inversion and image degradation, impair categorization human brain categorizes faces in comparisons to other at a more basic-level but not object detection [e. g., ]. In addition, and most fascinatingly, several recent visual stimuli, Rossion and Caharel  asked a sample studies have also demonstrated effects of feature-based of volunteers to discriminate between pictures of faces attention on the processing of stimuli of which the par- and cars, presented in both their intact and phase- scrambled versions, counterbalanced for luminance and ticipants where not at all aware [e. g., [90,91]], in line other visual features. The authors found discriminative with the view proposed by different sources that Zani and Proverbio Behavioral and Brain Functions 2012, 8:6 Page 16 of 19 http://www.behavioralandbrainfunctions.com/content/8/1/6 different neurophysiological processes are underlying selection-related C1 effects obtained in the present attention and awareness [e. g., [92,93]]. study. Our hypothesis seems to borrow strong support It is worth noting that both our present earliest C1 from some recent influential evidence in the literature. and P1 shape-relevance effects, and the pre-100 ms P1 Notably, single cells recordings in macaque V1 have face effects observed in ERPs by Rossion and Caharel undoubtedly demonstrated that the neuronal micro-net- , which are in all likelihood directly related to the works of this low-level occipital area not only may actively merge the line and edge components of the low-level visual cues of the stimuli [76-78], and most visual scenes into perceptually unified wholes [e. g., probably their Fourier AS information , meshes clo- ], but are also involved in the top-down gating of sely not only with the timing of the fastest saccadic behavioural response, but also with the differences horizontal connections of this area through feedback observed between the detection and categorization pro- projections inhibiting some sets of lateral interactions cesses, as well as between the neurophysiological pro- and/or activating others during geometric selectivity, cesses underlying attention and awareness. For truth’s rather than a simple gain control or a simple reflection sake, however, it must be reminded that, notwithstand- of higher sensory processing [e. g., ]. Most interest- ing these intriguing compatibilities, the whole of pre- ingly, these distinct selectivity patterns between the task vious ERP studies indexing the timing of shapes conditions would begin to develop between 70 ms and categorization has indicated category-divergence effects 120 ms after stimulus onset, and would reach maturity at the relatively later level of N1 (i. e., 140-160 ms) com- between 110 and 160 ms, the latter latency ranges being ponent [43-45]. pretty consistent with our ERPs earliest- and early A further source of evidence supporting our present latency effects. claims concerns our behavioural findings. Indeed, no In summary, our data provide evidence of an early matter their category difference, our participants’ motor modulation of brain activity (~ 60 ms) over the mesial response time to both animal and artefact categories and lateral occipital cortices for both location and shape occurred not only at a much later time than C1 latency attentional relevance. While, on the one hand, target range, but also somewhat later than both P300/N400 processing increased brain bioelectrical activity, which and LP processing levels too. Moreover, participants’ resulted as an increased N80 response for shape relevant response errors (FAs) almost exclusively concerned dis- pairs at mesial occipital sites (striate cortex), and as an tracter pairs at the relevant spatial location (L+S+/-). increased P80 for location relevant stimuli at lateral occipital sites, on the other hand, non-targets (both dis- Overall, this seem to further support the viewpoint that tracters, but especially irrelevant pairs) elicited a the significant effects at the C1 processing level might reflect a first basic-level selection of object salient fea- decreased neural response, and stimuli falling outside tures and spatial localization used to drive a perceptual the attentive focus were ignored at the highest cognitive decision process to which the relative later timing of levels immediately preceding the motor response. motor responses, indexing target true conscious recogni- All in all, this is one of the first pieces of experimental tion and categorization, would be related. These later evidence in humans indicating that, besides other brain processes would be based on the availability of a greater occipital areas, V1 area may also be directly involved in amount and a better quality of perceptual evidence [see object selection. This involvement would start since the  for a review advancing such theoretical hypothesis]. earliest post-stimulus processing latency, by contributing Despite the consistency with all this evidence from dif- with the analysis of basic information (possibly curved ferent lines of research on visual attentional and percep- vs. straight lines, presence of little circles, etc.), and tual processing, we want anyway to point out that these most of all, possibly, of the Fourier spatial frequency claims must be confirmed by further research. amplitude spectrum, thus suggesting that visual atten- A most important matter also deserves to be dis- tion can start modulating visual processing to a much cussed. Indeed, there seems to be a close consistency earlier stage than previously thought . between the present C1 shape effects and the C1 feature effects of a previous study of our group, which, using Limitations different spatial-frequency gratings presented in the four The potential limitations of this study are; (1) our sti- quadrants of the visual space during a spatial and fea- mulus materials were not presented across the horizon- tural conjoined-selection task , showed that these tal meridian of the visual field so to have an inversion in C1 feature effects had a source in the primary, besides polarity of the earliest C1 sensory response, renown in the secondary, visual areas. In the light of the aforemen- the literature to reflect at the scalp surface the activation tioned consistency, we are akin to advance the intri- of the visual striate areas; and (2) due to the lack of any guing hypothesis that there may be a similar source reconstruction, the activity could not be precisely involvement of the primary visual cortex in the shape- localized in the striate cortex. Thus, our conclusions are Zani and Proverbio Behavioral and Brain Functions 2012, 8:6 Page 17 of 19 http://www.behavioralandbrainfunctions.com/content/8/1/6 14. Kastner S, Pinsk MA, De Weerd P, Desimone R, Ungerleider LG: Increased based on the findings of robust differences in amplitude Activity in Human Visual Cortex during Directed Attention in the between relevant and irrelevant shapes, besides potential Absence of Visual Stimulation. Neuron 1999, 22:751-761. conflicting distracters, at the earliest time course of 15. 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This research has been funded by CNR grants to AZ. We are grateful to 19. Fu S, Zinni M, Squire PN, Kumar R, Caggiano DM, Parasuraman R: When Marzia Del Zotto who provided diligent assistance with EEG recording and and where perceptual load interacts with voluntary visuospatial analysis. Many thanks are due to two anonymous reviewers for their attention: An event-related potential and dipole modeling study. constructive criticisms on a previous version of the manuscript. Neuroimage 2008, 39:1345-1355. 20. Fu S, Huang Y, Wang Y, Fedota J, Greenwood PM, Parasuraman R: Author details Perceptual load interacts with involuntary attention at early processing Electro-Functional Brain Imaging unit (EFBIu), Institute of Molecular stages: event-related potential studies. Neuroimage 2009, 48:191-199. Bioimaging and Physiology, CNR, Milan, Italy. Department of Psychology, 21. Fu S, Fedota JR, Greenwood PM, Parasuraman R: Dissociation of visual C1 University of Milano-Bicocca, Milan, Italy. and P1 components as a function of attentional load: An event-related potential study. Biol Psychol 2010, 85:171-178. Authors’ contributions 22. Kelly SP, Gomez-Ramirez M, Foxe JJ: Spatial Attention Modulates Initial AZ and AMP took part in designing and planning the experiment, data Afferent Activity in Human Primary Visual Cortex. Cereb Cortex 2008, analyses and manuscript preparation. Both authors also contributed to figure 18:2629-2636. preparation and computational analyses for topographical mapping. Again, 23. Rauss KS, Pourtois G, Vuilleumier P, Schwartz S: Attentional load modifies both of them read and approved the final manuscript. early activity in human primary visual cortex. Human Brain Mapping 2009, 30:1723-1733. Received: 31 May 2011 Accepted: 2 February 2012 24. 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