Previous neurophysiological studies suggest that attention can alter the baseline or gain of neurons in extrastriate visual areas but that it cannot change tuning. This suggests that neurons in visual cortex function as labeled lines whose meaning does not depend on task demands. To test this common assumption, we used a system identification approach to measure spatial frequency and orientation tuning in area V4 during two attentionally demanding visual search tasks, one that required fixation and one that allowed free viewing during search. We found that spatial attention modulates response baseline and gain but does not alter tuning, consistent with previous reports. In contrast, feature-based attention often shifts neuronal tuning. These tuning shifts are inconsistent with the labeled-line model and tend to enhance responses to stimulus features that distinguish the search target. Our data suggest that V4 neurons behave as matched filters that are dynamically tuned to optimize visual search.
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