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Publication Detail
Attention and capacity limits in perception: A cellular metabolism account.
Limits on perceptual capacity result in various phenomena of inattentional blindness. Here we propose a neurophysiological account attributing these perceptual capacity limits directly to limits on cerebral cellular metabolism. We hypothesized that overall cerebral energy supply remains constant, irrespective of mental task demand, and therefore an attention mechanism is required to regulate cellular metabolism levels in line with task demands. Increased perceptual load in a task (imposing a greater demand on neural computations) should thus result in increased metabolism underlying attended processing, and reduced metabolism mediating unattended processing. We tested this prediction measuring oxidation states of cytochrome c oxidase (oxCCO), an intracellular marker of cellular metabolism. Broadband near-infrared spectroscopy was used to record oxCCO levels from human visual cortex while participants (both sexes) performed a rapid sequential visual search task under either high perceptual load (complex feature-conjunction search) or low load (feature pop-out search). A task-irrelevant, peripheral checkerboard was presented on a random half of trials. Our findings showed that oxCCO levels in visual cortex regions responsive to the attended-task stimuli were increased in high versus low perceptual load, while oxCCO levels related to unattended processing were significantly reduced. A negative temporal correlation of these load effects further supported our metabolism trade-off account. These results demonstrate an attentional compensation mechanism that regulates cellular metabolism levels according to processing demands. Moreover, they provide novel evidence for the widely-held stipulation that overall cerebral metabolism levels remain constant irrespective of mental task demand and establish a neurophysiological account for capacity limits in perception.Significance StatementWe investigated whether capacity limits in perception can be explained by the effects of attention on the allocation of limited cellular metabolic energy for perceptual processing. We measured the oxidation state of cytochrome c oxidase, an intracellular measure of metabolism, in human visual cortex during task performance. The results showed increased levels of cellular metabolism associated with attended processing and reduced levels of metabolism underlying unattended processing when the task was more demanding. A temporal correlation between these effects supported an attention-directed metabolism trade-off. These findings support an account for inattentional blindness grounded in cellular biochemistry. They also provide novel evidence for the claim that cerebral processing is limited by a constant energy supply, which thus requires attentional regulation.
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