Distinct roles of theta and alpha oscillations in the involuntary capture of goal-directed attention

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Mechanisms of attention assign priority to sensory inputs on the basis of current task goals. Previous studies have shown that lateralized neural oscillations within the alpha (8–14 Hz) range are associated with the voluntary allocation of attention to the contralateral visual field. It is currently unknown, however, whether similar oscillatory signatures instantiate the involuntary capture of spatial attention by goal-relevant stimulus properties. Here we investigated the roles of theta (4–8 Hz), alpha, and beta (14–30 Hz) oscillations in human goal-directed visual attention. Across two experiments, we had participants respond to a brief target of a particular color among heterogeneously colored distractors. Prior to target onset, we cued one location with a lateralized, non-predictive cue that was either target- or non-target-colored. During the behavioral task, we recorded brain activity using electroencephalography (EEG), with the aim of analyzing cue-elicited oscillatory activity. We found that theta oscillations lateralized in response to all cues, and this lateralization was stronger if the cue matched the target color. Alpha oscillations lateralized relatively later, and only in response to target-colored cues, consistent with the capture of spatial attention. Our findings suggest that stimulus induced changes in theta and alpha amplitude reflect task-based modulation of signals by feature-based and spatial attention, respectively.

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