by Sirawaj Itthipuripat, Vy A. Vo, Thomas C. Sprague, John T. Serences
When a behaviorally relevant stimulus has been previously associated with reward, behavioral responses are faster and more accurate compared to equally relevant but less valuable stimuli. Conversely, task-irrelevant stimuli that were previously associated with a high reward can capture attention and distract processing away from relevant stimuli (e.g., the chocolate bar in the pantry when you are looking for a nice, healthy apple). Although increasing the value of task-relevant stimuli systematically up-regulates neural responses in early visual cortex to facilitate information processing, it is not clear whether the value of task-irrelevant distractors influences behavior via competition in early visual cortex or via competition at later stages of decision-making and response selection. Here, we measured functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in human visual cortex while subjects performed a value-based learning task, and we applied a multivariate inverted encoding model (IEM) to assess the fidelity of distractor representations in early visual cortex. We found that the fidelity of neural representations related to task-irrelevant distractors increased when the distractors were previously associated with a high reward. This finding suggests that value-driven attentional capture begins with sensory modulations of distractor representations in early areas of visual cortex.