The effect of visual task difficulty and attentional direction on the detection of acoustic change as indexed by the Mismatch Negativity.Brain Res. 2006 Mar 17; 1078(1):112-30.BR
Näätänen's model of auditory processing purports that attention does not affect the MMN. The present study investigates this claim through two different manipulations. First, the effect of visual task difficulty on the passively elicited MMN is assessed. Second, the MMNs elicited by stimuli under attended and ignored conditions are compared. In Experiment 1, subjects were presented with mixed sequences of equiprobable auditory and visual stimuli. The auditory stimuli consisted of standard (80 dB SPL 1000 Hz), frequency deviant (1050 Hz), and intensity deviant (70 dB SPL) tone pips. In a first instance, subjects were instructed to ignore the auditory stimulation and engage in an easy and difficult visual discrimination task (focused condition). Subsequently, they were asked to attend to both modalities and detect visual and auditory deviant stimuli (divided condition). The results indicate that the passively elicited MMN to frequency and intensity deviants did not significantly vary with visual task difficulty, in spite of the fact that the easy and difficult tasks showed a wide variation in performance. The manipulation of the attentional direction (focused vs. divided conditions) did result in a significant effect on the MMN elicited by the intensity, but not frequency, deviant. The intensity MMN was larger at frontal sites when subjects' attention was directed to both modalities as compared to only the visual modality. The attentional effect on the MMN to the intensity deviants only may be due to the specific deviant feature or the poorer perceptual discriminability of this deviant from the standard. Experiment 2 was designed to address this issue. The methods of Experiment 2 were identical to those of Experiment 1 with the exception that the intensity deviant (60 dB SPL) was made to be more perceptible than the frequency deviant (1016 Hz) when compared to the standard stimulus (80 dB SPL 1000 Hz). The results of Experiment 2 also demonstrated that the passively elicited MMN was not affected by large variations in visual task difficulty; this provides convincing evidence that the MMN is independent of visual task demands. Similarly to Experiment 1, the direction of attention again had a significant effect on the MMN. In Experiment 2, however, the frequency MMN (and not the intensity MMN) was larger at frontal sites during divided attention compared to focused visual attention. The most parsimonious explanation of these results is that attention enhances the discriminability of the deviant from the standard background stimulation. As such, small acoustic changes would benefit from attention whereas the discriminability of larger changes may not be significantly enhanced.