Royal Society Publishing

Neural responses to salient visual stimuli

J. S. Morris, K. J. Friston, R. J. Dolan


The neural mechanisms involved in the selective processing of salient or behaviourally important stimuli are uncertain. We used an aversive conditioning paradigm in human volunteer subjects to manipulate the salience of visual stimuli (emotionally expressive faces) presented during positron emission tomography (PET) neuroimaging. Increases in salience, and conflicts between the innate and acquired value of the stimuli, produced augmented activation of the pulvinar nucleus of the right thalamus. Furthermore, this pulvinar activity correlated positively with responses in structures hypothesized to mediate value in the brain–right amygdala and basal forebrain (including the cholinergic nucleus basalis of Meynert). The results provide evidence that the pulvinar nucleus of the thalamus plays a crucial modulatory role in selective visual processing, and that changes in perceptual salience are mediated by value–dependent plasticity in pulvinar responses.

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