Developmental mechanisms underlying improved contrast thresholds for discriminations of orientation signals embedded in noise
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We combined an external noise paradigm with an efficient procedure for obtaining contrast thresholds (Lesmes et al., 2006) in order to model developmental changes in the effect of noise on contrast discrimination during childhood. Specifically, we measured the contrast thresholds of 5-, 7-, 9-year-olds and adults (n = 20/age) in a two alternative forced-choice orientation discrimination task over a wide range of external noise levels and at three levels of accuracy. Overall, as age increased, contrast thresholds decreased over the entire range of external noise levels tested. The decrease was greatest between 5 and 7 years of age. The reduction in threshold after age 5 was greater in the high than the low external noise region, a pattern implying greater tolerance of the irrelevant background noise as children became older. To model the mechanisms underlying these developmental changes in terms of internal noise components, we adapted the original perceptual template model (Lu and Dosher, 1998) and normalized the magnitude of performance changes against the performance of 5-year-olds. The resulting model provided an excellent fit (r (2) = 0.985) to the contrast thresholds at multiple levels of accuracy (60, 75, and 90%) across a wide range of external noise levels. The improvements in contrast thresholds with age were best modeled by a combination of reductions in internal additive noise, reductions in internal multiplicative noise, and improvements in excluding external noise by template retuning. In line with the data, the improvement was greatest between 5 and 7 years of age, accompanied by a 39% reduction in additive noise, 71% reduction in multiplicative noise, and 45% improvement in external noise exclusion. The modeled improvements likely reflect developmental changes at the cortical level, rather than changes in front-end structural properties (Kiorpes et al., 2003).
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