3 Methodological background

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Two methodological premises largely influenced the proposal for this dissertation. First, the quest for the neural basis of tactile WM should start with the investigation of a relatively simple task manipulating only specific stimulus features and involving few cognitive processes. Second, to get a complete understanding of tactile WM, converging evidence provided by different methods and integration of findings over species is necessary. Therefore, in all experiments of this dissertation a vibrotactile delayed discrimination task was employed which has been used in previous studies using the methods of single-unit recordings in non-human primates and behavioral experiments in humans. In the present dissertation, this task was studied using complementary methods: fMRI, EEG, subliminal electrical stimulation and psychophysics. The task and the neuroscientific methods will be introduced in the next sections.

3.1 Vibrotactile delayed discrimination task

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In all experiments of this dissertation (Study I to V), subjects performed a vibrotactile delayed discrimination task (Figure 2) similar to that previously used in primate (Romo et al., 99) and human studies (Harris et al., 02). The specific task parameters are described in more detail in the different manuscripts related to this dissertation. In general, each trial began with a warning tone indicating that the next pair of vibrations would appear. After a couple of hundred ms, the first vibrotactile stimulus (standard stimulus) was applied to the distal phalanx of the subjects' right index finger followed by a delay varying between 100 and 4100 ms. After the delay, the second vibrotactile stimulus (comparison stimulus) was applied to the identical location as the standard stimulus. With the exception of study IV where the trial types and the response alternatives were varied, the subjects had to decide if the comparison stimulus had a higher or a lower frequency than the standard stimulus. They had to indicate their choice by pressing one of two response buttons. All vibrations lasted 1000 ms. The frequency of the first vibration varied on a trial to trial basis ranging from 10 to 43 Hz. The frequency of second vibration was depending on the experiment either 1, 3 to 7 Hz higher or lower than the first frequency. In the fMRI (Study I and Study V) and EEG (Study II) experiments, two No-WM control conditions were also applied. The trial structure of these control conditions was identical to the WM condition but the vibration frequencies within one trial were identical. The vibrotactile delayed discrimination task can be sub-divided into different task periods: encoding (ranging from the beginning of the standard vibration to its end), maintenance (ranging from the end of the standard vibration to the beginning of the comparison vibration), and decision making (starting with the beginning of the comparison vibration end ending with the subjects' response).

Figure 2. The vibrotactile delayed discrimination task. After a warning tone, two vibrotactile stimuli are presented successively to the subject's index finger. The subject has to discriminate between the two vibration frequencies.

3.2 Functional magnetic resonance imaging

FMRI was used in Study I and V. It is a method to study brain activity non-invasively. It is important to emphasize that fMRI does not measure neuronal activity directly. FMRI employs the blood-oxygen-level-dependent (BOLD) contrast to indicate local changes in neural activity (Kwong et al., 92; Ogawa et al., 90). Neural activity associated with information processing leads to metabolic changes including increased oxygen consumption in the respective brain regions. Mediated by physiological mechanisms that are still not completely understood, this increased oxygen consumption leads to an increase of local blood volume and a large rise in local blood flow, the so-called luxury perfusion (Fox et al., 88; Fox und Raichle, 86). As a result of this increased blood flow, vessels in activated brain regions contain an over-supply of oxygenated blood and consequently a relatively low amount de-oxygenated blood. Because deoxyhemoglobin has paramagnetic features, its presence leads to local inhomogeneities of the magnetic field. Inhomogeneities lead to a faster decay of the MRI signal. Therefore, active brain regions which exhibit a relatively low amount of deoxyhemoglobin show a slower decay of the MRI signal than non-activated brain regions resulting in an increased BOLD signal. In brief, fMRI measures the relative absence of deoxyhemoglobin in a given brain region which, mediated over hemodynamic coupling and the associated BOLD response, is an indicator for local neural activity (Logothetis und Wandell, 04). Although still an issue of intense research, the BOLD contrast is assumed to reflect mainly neuronal input and local integration processes within a brain region associated with pre- and postsynaptic currents and to a lesser degree neuronal output of a brain region related to action potentials in projection neurons (Logothetis et al., 01; Viswanathan und Freeman, 07).

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The time course of the BOLD response to a brief sensory stimulation is called the hemodynamic response function (HRF). Whereas the neuronal response to the stimulus rises quickly and ends a few hundred ms post-stimulus, the typical BOLD response only begins to rise at about 2 s and reaches a maximum at 5–9 s after stimulus onset and then slowly returns to baseline (for review see Logothetis and Wandell (04)). In some instances the BOLD response has an initial dip and a post-stimulus undershoot. The slow HRF causes the relatively poor temporal resolution of fMRI. The exact form of the HRF differs across brain regions and between subjects as well as tasks. It also depends on the stimulus duration. To model brain activity in fMRI analyses usually a canonical HRF is used (Friston et al., 95). Depending on the degree of spatial smoothing applied, the spatial resolution of fMRI lies usually between 4 and 12 mm2. For group analyses, functional maps are normalized to a structural brain template using coordinates according to the Talairach or the Montreal Neurological Institute standards (Evans et al., 93; Talairach und Tournoux, 88). For illustrating purposes, the relatively low-resolution functional activation maps are usually super-imposed on high-resolution structural MRI images.

3.3 Electroencephalography

EEG was used in Study II. In contrast to fMRI, EEG provides a direct measure of neuronal activity and has a temporal resolution in the range of ms but a lower spatial resolution. Surface EEG reflects voltage differences between electrodes positioned on the skull (Berger, 29). The EEG signal is composed of summated activity of post-synaptic currents of thousands of pyramidal cells in the underlying cortex that have the same spatial orientation and are synchronously activated (for review see Barlow (93)). EEG is only sensitive to currents from sources located with a radial orientation to the skull. Because the strength of electric fields falls off with increasing distance, deep sources contribute less to the EEG signal than sources near the skull. Neuronal oscillatory activity, which can be recorded with EEG, is caused by complex interactions between inhibitory and excitatory mechanisms either on the level of single neurons mediated by intrinsic membrane properties or on the level of networks mediated by local inhibitory interneurons and feedback loops (Singer, 93; Lopes da Silva, 91). Oscillatory activity can be related to functionally distinct brain rhythms that are defined by a characteristic frequency and spatial distribution. These rhythms seem to reflect different states of brain functioning and specific aspects of information processing. Whereas synchronous oscillation in the beta (15 - 25 Hz) and gamma (25 - 120 Hz) frequency range seem to reflect binding of locally distributed stimulus and memory representations (Gray et al., 89; Singer, 99; Tallon-Baudry, 03; Fries, 05), oscillations in the theta (4 - 8 Hz) and alpha (8 - 14 Hz) frequency range have been linked to long-range thalamo-cortical and cortico-cortical connections and top-down attentional control (Palva und Palva, 07; Klimesch et al., 05; von Stein und Sarnthein, 00). In addition, oscillatory activity over modality-specific sensory cortices indicates the functional state of these brain regions (Hari et al., 97; Pfurtscheller und Lopes da Silva, 99; Berger, 29). Specifically, the modulation of the rolandic rhythms, which can be recorded over the somatomotor cortex and lie in the alpha and beta frequency range, are an indicator of somatosensory activation with a power increase reflecting active processing or readiness to process somatosensory stimuli and a power increase indicating somatosensory inhibition (Hari et al., 97; Pfurtscheller et al., 97).

3.4 Subliminal electrical stimulation

Subliminal electrical stimulation was used in Study III. As opposed to fMRI and EEG, subliminal electrical stimulation is not a method for measuring brain activity. However, by influencing the physiological state of S1, it affects performance in tasks depending on the integrity of S1. Subliminal electrical stimulation of the finger has been demonstrated to selectively enhance inhibition of S1 as reflected by effects on a physiological and behavioral level (Taskin et al., 08; Blankenburg et al., 03). Thalamo-cortical afferents activate both excitatory glutamatergic principal cells and fast-spiking GABAergic inhibitory interneurons in layer IV of S1. These interneurons again inhibit the same principal cells that are activated by the thalamo-cortical afferents. Thalamo-cortical input activates the inhibitory interneurons more strongly than excitatory principal cells leading to powerful and efficient local feedforward inhibition (Swadlow, 02; Bruno und Simons, 02; Gibson et al., 99; Inoue und Imoto, 06; Gil und Amitai, 96). The physiological effects underlying subliminal stimulation are either caused by a preferential activation of feedforward inhibitory interneurons due to their lower spiking threshold (Gil und Amitai, 96) or by synaptic mechanisms (Cruikshank et al., 07). Whatever process is involved, at a functional level such a strong inhibitory network reduces the likelihood or even prevents cortical target neurons to reach threshold when sensory input is weak or not optimal (Swadlow, 03).


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