Causal implication by rhythmic transcranial magnetic stimulation of alpha frequency in feature-based local vs. global attention

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Although oscillatory activity in the alpha band was traditionally associated with lack of alertness, more recent work has linked it to specific cognitive functions, including visual attention. The emerging method of rhythmic transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) allows causal interventional tests for the online impact on performance of TMS administered in short bursts at a particular frequency. TMS bursts at 10 Hz have recently been shown to have an impact on spatial visual attention, but any role in featural attention remains unclear. Here we used rhythmic TMS at 10 Hz to assess the impact on attending to global or local components of a hierarchical Navon-like stimulus (D. Navon (1977)Forest before trees: The precedence of global features in visual perception.Cognit. Psychol., 9, 353), in a paradigm recently used with TMS at other frequencies (V. Romei, J. Driver, P.G. Schyns & G. Thut. (2011) Rhythmic TMS over parietal cortex links distinct brain frequencies to global versus local visual processing.Curr. Biol., 2, 334–337). In separate groups, left or right posterior parietal sites were stimulated at 10 Hz just before presentation of the hierarchical stimulus. Participants had to identify either the local or global component in separate blocks. Right parietal 10 Hz stimulation (vs. sham) significantly impaired global processing without affecting local processing, while left parietal 10 Hz stimulation vs. sham impaired local processing with a minor trend to enhance global processing. These 10 Hz outcomes differed significantly from stimulation at other frequencies (i.e. 5 or 20 Hz) over the same site in other recent work with the same paradigm. These dissociations confirm differential roles of the two hemispheres in local vs. global processing, and reveal a frequency-specific role for stimulation in the alpha band for regulating feature-based visual attention.

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