Dissociating neuronal signatures of spatial attention and behavioural state in the primary vibrissal cortex of mice

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The prioritisation and selective processing of information is imperative to survival. One form of prioritisation, known as spatial attention, allows an animal to selectively process sensory input based on its location. While spatial attention is known to produce changes in neuronal representation, it is unclear whether these changes occur as early as the primary sensory cortex. It is also not clear whether changes induced by selective spatial attention differ from those observed with non-selective fluctuations in arousal. To study attention, the rodent whisker system represents a structurally elegant, and functionally efficient alternative to the often-studied primate visual system. Here, we implemented a novel, ecologically relevant paradigm to incorporate spatial attention in a whisker vibration detection task in mice. We demonstrated that mice (n = 11) exhibit spatially selective evidence accumulation behaviour within their responses to single vibration stimuli, across their responses to tens of stimuli, and throughout each day of training. To dissociate the neuronal signatures of spatial attention from those of spatially non-specific behavioural state, we recorded 1461 responsive neurons in the primary vibrissal cortex (vS1) as mice engaged in the detection task. The strength of neuronal responses to vibrissal stimulation correlated significantly with spatial attention, but not with spatially non-specific behavioural state. We found that spatial attention elevates both baseline neuronal activity and a later (200–600 ms) component of evoked responses to whisker vibrations. These results have implications for the microcircuitry of spatial attention in vS1 and value-driven attentional capture in mice.

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