Friday, October 12, 2007

A neural marker of consciousness

Here is the author's summary of an interesting article by Del Cul et al. in PlosBiology.
Understanding the neural mechanisms that distinguish between conscious and nonconscious processes is a crucial issue in cognitive neuroscience. In this study, we focused on the transition that causes a visual stimulus to cross the threshold to consciousness, i.e., visibility. We used a backward masking paradigm in which the visibility of a briefly presented stimulus (the “target”) is reduced by a second stimulus (the “mask”) presented shortly after this first stimulus. (Human participants report the visibility of the target.) When the delay between target and mask stimuli exceeds a threshold value, the masked stimulus becomes visible. Below this threshold, it remains nonvisible. During the task, we recorded electric brain activity from the scalp and reconstructed the cortical sources corresponding to this activity. Conscious perception of masked stimuli corresponded to activity in a broadly distributed fronto-parieto-temporal network, occurring from about 300 ms after stimulus presentation. We conclude that this late stage, which could be clearly separated from earlier neural events associated with subliminal processing and mask-target interactions, can be regarded as a marker of consciousness.

Figure: Top, depth of cortical processing: subliminal stimuli (left panel) should evoke a strong activation in extrastriate visual cortex, but their intensity should quickly decrease in higher visual areas; only conscious stimuli (right panel) should trigger a late surge of activation in a global prefronto-parietal network. Bottom, schematic time course of activation as a function of masking strength. Masking is expected to have little effect on early visual activation but to modulate the strength of activation in higher visual areas. Furthermore, there should be a nonlinear effect of masking strength in prefrontal cortex, with a similar late top-down activation peak occurring simultaneously in visual areas

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