Using electrophysiology and a classic fear conditioning paradigm, this work examined adaptive visuocortical changes in spatial frequency tuning in a sample of 50 undergraduate students. High-density EEG was recorded while participants viewed 400 total trials of individually presented Gabor patches of 10 different spatial frequencies. Patches were flickered to produce sweep steady-state visual evoked potentials (ssVEPs) at a temporal frequency of 13.33 Hz, with stimulus contrast ramping up from 0% to 41% Michelson over the course of each 2800-msec trial. During the final 200 trials, a selected range of Gabor stimuli (either the lowest or highest spatial frequencies, manipulated between participants) were paired with an aversive 90-dB white noise auditory stimulus. Changes in spatial frequency tuning from before to after conditioning for paired and unpaired gratings were evaluated at the behavioral and electrophysiological level. Specifically, ssVEP amplitude changes were evaluated for lateral inhibition and generalization trends, whereas change in alpha band (8–12 Hz) activity was tested for a generalization trend across spatial frequencies, using permutation-controlled F contrasts. Overall time courses of the sweep ssVEP amplitude envelope and alpha-band power were orthogonal, and ssVEPs proved insensitive to spatial frequency conditioning. Alpha reduction (blocking) was most pronounced when viewing fear-conditioned spatial frequencies, with blocking decreasing along the gradient of spatial frequencies preceding conditioned frequencies, indicating generalization across spatial frequencies. Results suggest that alpha power reduction—conceptually linked to engagement of attention and alertness/arousal mechanisms—to fear-conditioned stimuli operates independently of low-level spatial frequency processing (indexed by ssVEPs) in primary visual cortex.

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