Salient stimuli are characterized by their capability to perturb and seize available cognitive resources. Although the striatum and its dopaminergic inputs respond to a variety of stimuli categorically defined as salient, including rewards, the relationship between striatal activity and saliency is not well understood. Specifically, it is unclear if the striatum responds in an all-or-none fashion to salient events or instead responds in a graded fashion to the degree of saliency associated with an event. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we measured activity in the brains of 20 participants performing a visual classification task in which they identified single digits as odd or even numbers. An auditory tone preceded each number, which was occasionally, and unexpectedly, substituted by a novel sound. The novel sounds varied in their ability to interrupt and reallocate cognitive resources (i.e., their saliency) as measured by a delay in reaction time to immediately subsequent numerical task-stimuli. The present findings demonstrate that striatal activity increases proportionally to the degree to which an unexpected novel sound interferes with the current cognitive focus, even in the absence of reward. These results suggest that activity in the human striatum reflects the level of saliency associated with a stimulus, perhaps providing a signal to reallocate limited resources to important events.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Cognitive Neuroscience