Modulation of alpha and gamma oscillations related to retrospectively orienting attention within working memory

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Abstract

Selective attention mechanisms allow us to focus on information that is relevant to the current behavior and, equally important, ignore irrelevant information. An influential model proposes that oscillatory neural activity in the alpha band serves as an active functional inhibitory mechanism. Recent studies have shown that, in the same way that attention can be selectively oriented to bias sensory processing in favor of relevant stimuli in perceptual tasks, it is also possible to retrospectively orient attention to internal representations held in working memory. However, these studies have not explored the associated oscillatory phenomena. In the current study, we analysed the patterns of neural oscillatory activity recorded with magnetoencephalography while participants performed a change detection task, in which a spatial retro-cue was presented during the maintenance period, indicating which item or items were relevant for subsequent retrieval. Participants benefited from retro-cues in terms of accuracy and reaction time. Retro-cues also modulated oscillatory activity in the alpha and gamma frequency bands. We observed greater alpha activity in a ventral visual region ipsilateral to the attended hemifield, thus supporting its suppressive role, i.e. a functional disengagement of task-irrelevant regions. Accompanying this modulation, we found an increase in gamma activity contralateral to the attended hemifield, which could reflect attentional orienting and selective processing. These findings suggest that the oscillatory mechanisms underlying attentional orienting to representations held in working memory are similar to those engaged when attention is oriented in the perceptual space.

Our study shows that orienting attention retrospectively to internal representations held in working memory modulated the patterns of neural oscillatory activity in the ventral visual cortex. Specifically, we observed greater alpha activity in the ventral visual cortex ipsilateral to the attended hemifield, supporting its active functional inhibitory role. This pattern of activity was accompanied by an increase in gamma activity contralateral to the attended hemifield, which can reflect attentional orienting and selective processing.

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