September 2018, Vol. 30, No. 9, Pages 1209-1228
Attentional Fluctuations Influence the Neural Fidelity and Connectivity of Stimulus Representations
Attention is thought to facilitate both the representation of task-relevant features and the communication of these representations across large-scale brain networks. However, attention is not “all or none,” but rather it fluctuates between stable/accurate (in-the-zone) and variable/error-prone (out-of-the-zone) states. Here we ask how different attentional states relate to the neural processing and transmission of task-relevant information. Specifically, during in-the-zone periods: (1) Do neural representations of task stimuli have greater fidelity? (2) Is there increased communication of this stimulus information across large-scale brain networks? Finally, (3) can the influence of performance-contingent reward be differentiated from zone-based fluctuations? To address these questions, we used fMRI and representational similarity analysis during a visual sustained attention task (the gradCPT). Participants (n = 16) viewed a series of city or mountain scenes, responding to cities (90% of trials) and withholding to mountains (10%). Representational similarity matrices, reflecting the similarity structure of the city exemplars (n = 10), were computed from visual, attentional, and default mode networks. Representational fidelity (RF) and representational connectivity (RC) were quantified as the interparticipant reliability of representational similarity matrices within (RF) and across (RC) brain networks. We found that being in the zone was characterized by increased RF in visual networks and increasing RC between visual and attentional networks. Conversely, reward only increased the RC between the attentional and default mode networks. These results diverge with analogous analyses using functional connectivity, suggesting that RC and functional connectivity in tandem better characterize how different mental states modulate the flow of information throughout the brain.