Recent work has demonstrated that the occipital–temporal N1 component of the ERP is sensitive to the difficulty of visual discrimination, in a manner that cannot be explained by simple differences in low-level visual features, arousal, or time on task. These observations provide evidence that the occipital–temporal N1 component is modulated by the application of top–down control. However, the timing of this control process remains unclear. Previous work has demonstrated proactive, top–down modulation of cortical excitability for cued spatial attention or feature selection tasks. Here, the possibility that a similar top–down process facilitates performance of a difficult stimulus discrimination task is explored. Participants performed an oddball task at two levels of discrimination difficulty, with difficulty manipulated by modulating the similarity between target and nontarget stimuli. Discrimination processes and cortical excitability were assessed via the amplitude of the occipital–temporal N1 component and prestimulus alpha oscillation of the EEG, respectively. For correct discriminations, prestimulus alpha power was reduced, and the occipital–temporal N1 was enhanced in the hard relative to the easy condition. Furthermore, within the hard condition, prestimulus alpha power was reduced, and the occipital–temporal N1 was enhanced for correct relative to incorrect discriminations. The generation of ERPs contingent on relative prestimulus alpha power additionally suggests that diminished alpha power preceding stimulus onset is related to enhancement of the occipital–temporal N1. As in spatial attention, proactive control appears to enhance cortical excitability and facilitate discrimination performance in tasks requiring nonspatial, feature-based attention, even in the absence of competing stimulus features.

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