Avoiding distraction by conspicuous but irrelevant stimuli is critical to accomplishing daily tasks. Regions of prefrontal cortex control attention by enhancing the representation of task-relevant information in sensory cortex, which can be measured in modulation of both single neurons and event-related electrical potentials (ERPs) on the cranial surface [1, 2]. When irrelevant information is particularly conspicuous, it can distract attention and interfere with the selection of behaviorally relevant information. Such distraction can be minimized via top-down control [3-5], but the cognitive and neural mechanisms giving rise to this control over distraction remain uncertain and debated [6-9]. Bridging neurophysiology to electrophysiology, we simultaneously recorded neurons in prefrontal cortex and ERPs over extrastriate visual cortex to track the processing of salient distractors during a visual search task. Critically, when the salient distractor was successfully ignored, but not otherwise, we observed robust suppression of salient distractor representations. Like target selection, the distractor suppression was observed in prefrontal cortex before it appeared over extrastriate cortical areas. Furthermore, all prefrontal neurons that showed suppression of the task-irrelevant distractor also contributed to selecting the target. This suggests a common prefrontal mechanism is responsible for both selecting task-relevant and suppressing task-irrelevant information in sensory cortex. Taken together, our results resolve a long-standing debate over the mechanisms that prevent distraction, and provide the first evidence directly linking suppressed neural firing in prefrontal cortex with surface ERP measures of distractor suppression.
Copyright © 2017 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.