Attention and perceptual learning (PL) are two mechanisms known to improve visual perception, though, for the most part, they have been studied separately. I propose to thoroughly investigate the effects of manipulating covert attention on PL. PL involves relatively long-lasting (weeks or months) changes to an organism's perceptual system. Such changes improve the ability to respond to events in the environment and are considered a manifestation of neural plasticity in the adult brain. PL has been demonstrated psychophysically for many stimuli in various sensory modalities, and is often highly specific to stimulus and task. For instance, if observers learn (in the initial training phase) how to perform a task at a particular location in the visual field, they later (in the testing phase) show no benefit at untrained locations. Attention operates on a much shorter timescale than PL and is the most important mechanism that selectively and dynamically improves perceptual performance. Covert attention - the selective processing of information at a given location without eye movements to that location - improves perceptual performance on many detection, discrimination and localization tasks in early vision. I am interested in how exogenous (involuntary) and endogenous (voluntary) covert attention affect the hallmark specificity of PL, and whether attention can interact with learning to overcome this limitation to the improvement in performance PL engenders. I will use visual dimensions for which both PL specificity and modulation by attention have been shown;e.g., location, orientation and spatial frequency. Investigating the psychophysical changes associated with the effects of attention on PL will lead to increased understanding of plasticity in the visual system. The question of whether and how different forms of attention enhance plasticity in the adult cortex is important theoretically and has practical consequences. PL probably underlies most of what we do well visually in our professional and personal lives and is thus of enormous basic interest and practical importance. This question is also crucial for understanding and evaluating the potential of rehabilitation following damage to the visual system. Our own studies on the effects of attention on early vision conducted during the period of the current grant place us in a unique position to conduct the proposed research. Pilot studies indicate that attention plays a pivotal and unanticipated role in PL. I will characterize the effects of each type of attention, endogenous and exogenous, for the following aims: (1) PL in visual search across the visual field;(2) PL of basic dimensions (e.g., contrast sensitivity, orientation and spatial resolution) with regard to location specificity, taking into account retinal distance, cortical distance and the size of the attentional window;(3) PL with regard to feature (e.g., contrast sensitivity, orientation) learning and transfer specificity;(4) PL in the absence of awareness. The proposed research will utilize different psychophysical procedures to contribute to our understanding of how brain plasticity alters vision as indicated by PL, and how visual processing interacts with other brain systems underlying cognition, in particular, attention. The findings will have theoretical relevance and will contribute to our understanding and evaluation of potential of rehabilitation following damage to the visual system.
I propose to thoroughly investigate the effects of manipulating covert attention on PL. PL is the foundation of our visual competence, so the question of whether and how different forms of attention may enhance plasticity in the adult cortex in the general population is important theoretically and has practical consequences. The experimental protocols that I will develop for studying how attention affects perceptual learning in healthy human observers will be readily applicable to patient populations. A better understanding of visual attention and perceptual learning with healthy observers will lead to a better understanding of factors limiting peripheral vision, which are critical when central vision is compromised due to macular degeneration and related visual deficits. Basic knowledge of visual attention has implications for our understanding of several neuropsychological disorders and for informing the development of their diagnostic testing, including unilateral neglect, schizophrenia and ADHD. Basic knowledge of how attention affects perceptual learning has implications for rehabilitation of patients with amblyopia, macular degeneration, and cortical blindness as well as for the evaluation of the potential of visual rehabilitation after trauma and tumors or infarcts ('stroke').
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