Gating at early cortical processing stages is associated with changes in behavioural performance on a sensory conflict task
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While there is evidence to show early enhancement of modality-specific somatosensory cortical event-related potentials (ERP) when two stimuli are task-relevant, less is understood about the cortical and behavioural correlates of early modality-specific sensory gating. This study sought to understand how attentional gating affects cortical processing of visual and tactile stimuli at early stages of modality-specific representation. Specifically, alterations in early somatosensory and visual processing based on attentional relevance were examined, along with the effect of an unattended sensory stimulus on cortical processing and behavioural performance. Electroencephalography (EEG) was collected from healthy participants as they performed a sensory selection task. This task required participants to make a scaled motor response to the amplitudes of visual and tactile stimuli presented individually or concurrently. Results showed that the somatosensory N70 ERP was significantly attenuated when tactile stimuli were unattended. When visual stimuli were unattended, modulation of visual potentials occurred later, at the visual P2 potential. Since unattended tactile stimuli were gated at early cortical processing stages, when they were used as distractors, no changes in cortical responses to target stimuli were observed. Additionally, there was no decrease in task accuracy when grading attended stimuli in the presence of a tactile distractor. However, since early gating was not observed in the visual modality, a visual stimulus used as an unattended distractor resulted in smaller-amplitude cortical responses to attended tactile stimuli and less accurate task performance when grading attended stimuli. In conclusion, this study suggests that early gating of unattended stimuli supports modality-specific cortical processing of target stimuli and maintains behavioural task performance.
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