Attention causes a multiplicative effect on firing rates of cortical neurons without affecting their selectivity (Motter, 1993; McAdams & Maunsell, 1999a) or the relationship between the spike count mean and variance (McAdams & Maunsell, 1999b). We analyzed attentional modulation of the firing rates of 144 neurons in the secondary somatosensory cortex (SII) of two monkeys trained to switch their attention between a tactile pattern recognition task and a visual task. We found that neurons in SII cortex also undergo a predominantly multiplicative modulation in firing rates without affecting the ratio of variance to mean firing rate (i.e., the Fano factor). Furthermore, both additive and multiplicative components of attentional modulation varied dynamically during the stimulus presentation.

We then used a standard conductance-based integrate-and-fire model neuron to ascertain which mechanisms might account for a multiplicative increase in firing rate without affecting the Fano factor. Six mechanisms were identified as biophysically plausible ways that attention could modify the firing rate: spike threshold, firing rate adaptation, excitatory input synchrony, synchrony between all inputs, membrane leak resistance, and reset potential. Of these, only a change in spike threshold or in firing rate adaptation affected model firing rates in a manner compatible with the observed neural data. The results indicate that only a limited number of biophysical mechanisms can account for observed attentional modulation.

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