Proactive distractor suppression in early visual cortex

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Avoiding distraction by salient yet irrelevant stimuli is critical when accomplishing daily tasks. One possible mechanism to accomplish this is by suppressing stimuli that may be distracting such that they no longer compete for attention. While the behavioral benefits of distractor suppression are well-established, its neural underpinnings are not yet fully understood. In an fMRI study, we examined whether and how sensory responses in early visual areas show signs of distractor suppression after incidental learning of spatial statistical regularities. Participants were exposed to an additional singleton task where, unbeknownst to them, one location more frequently contained a salient distractor. We then analyzed whether visual responses in terms of fMRI BOLD were modulated by this distractor predictability. Our findings indicate that implicit spatial priors shape sensory processing even at the earliest stages of cortical visual processing, evident in early visual cortex as a suppression of stimuli at locations which frequently contained distracting information. Notably, while this suppression was spatially (receptive field) specific, it did extend to nearby neutral locations, and occurred regardless of whether the distractor, a nontarget item or the target was presented at this location, suggesting that suppression arises before stimulus identification. Crucially, we observed a similar pattern of spatially specific neural suppression even if search was only anticipated, but no search display was presented. Our results highlight proactive modulations in early visual cortex, where potential distractions are suppressed preemptively, before stimulus onset, based on learned expectations. Combined, our study underscores how the brain leverages implicitly learned prior knowledge to optimize sensory processing and attention allocation.

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