Microsaccade-related brain potentials signal the focus of visuospatial attention

Susann Meyberg, Markus Werkle-Bergner, Werner Sommer, & Olaf Dimigen


Covert shifts of visuospatial attention are traditionally assumed to occur in the absence of oculomotor behavior. In contrast, recent behavioral studies have linked attentional cueing effects to the occurrence of microsaccades, small eye movements executed involuntarily during attempted fixation. Here we used a new type of electrophysiological marker to explore the attention-microsaccade relationship, the visual brain activity evoked by the microsaccade itself. By shifting the retinal image, microsaccades frequently elicit neural responses throughout the visual pathway, scalp-recordable in the human EEG as a microsaccade-related potential (mSRP). Although mSRPs contain similar signal components (P1/N1) as traditional visually-evoked potentials (VEPs), it is unknown whether they are also influenced by cognition. Based on established findings that VEPs are amplified for visual inputs at currently attended locations, we expected a selective gain-modulation also for mSRPs. Eye movements and EEG were coregistered in a classic spatial cueing task with an endogenous cue. Replicating behavioral findings, the direction of early microsaccades 200–400 ms after cue onset was biased towards the cued side. However, for microsaccades throughout the cue-target interval, mSRPs were systematically enhanced at occipital scalp sites contralateral to the cued hemifield. This attention effect resembled that in a control condition with VEPs and did not interact with the direction of the underlying microsaccade, suggesting that mSRPs reflect the focus of sustained visuospatial attention, which remains fixed at the cued location, despite microsaccades. Microsaccades are not merely an artifact source in the EEG; instead, they are followed by cognitively modulated brain potentials that can serve as non-intrusive electrophysiological probes of attention.

Keywords:visual attention, fixational eye movements, Posner cueing, EEG, P1, saccade-related potential

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