The Mismatch Negativity (MMN) has been characterised as a ‘pre-attentive’ component of an Event-Related Potential (ERP) that is related to discriminatory processes. Although well established in the auditory domain, characteristics of the MMN are less well characterised in the visual domain. The five main studies presented in this thesis examine visual cortical processing using event-related potentials. Novel methodologies have been used to elicit visual detection and discrimination components in the absence of a behavioural task. Developing paradigms in which a behavioural task is not required may have important clinical applications for populations, such as young children, who cannot comply with the demands of an active task. The ‘pre-attentive’ nature of visual MMN has been investigated by modulating attention. Generators and hemispheric lateralisation of visual MMN have been investigated by using pertinent clinical groups.
A three stimulus visual oddball paradigm was used to explore the elicitation of visual discrimination components to a change in the orientation of stimuli in the absence of a behavioural task. Monochrome stimuli based on pacman figures were employed that differed from each other only in terms of the orientation of their elements. One such stimulus formed an illusory figure in order to capture the participant’s attention, either in place of, or alongside, a behavioural task. The elicitation of a P3a to the illusory figure but not to the standard or deviant stimuli provided evidence that the illusory figure captured attention. A visual MMN response was recorded in a paradigm with no task demands. When a behavioural task was incorporated into the paradigm, a P3b component was elicited consistent with the allocation of attentional resources to the task. However, visual discrimination components were attenuated revealing that the illusory figure was unable to command all attentional resources from the standard deviant transition. The results are the first to suggest that the visual MMN is modulated by attention.
Using the same three stimulus oddball paradigm, generators of visual MMN were investigated by recording potentials directly from the cortex of an adolescent undergoing pre-surgical evaluation for resection of a right anterior parietal lesion. To date no other study has explicitly recorded activity related to the visual MMN intracranially using an oddball paradigm in the absence of a behavioural task. Results indicated that visual N1 and visual MMN could be temporally and spatially separated, with visual MMN being recorded more anteriorly than N1.
The characteristic abnormality in retinal projections in albinism afforded the opportunity to investigate each hemisphere in relative isolation and was used, for the first time, as a model to investigate lateralisation of visual MMN and illusory contour processing. Using the three stimulus oddball paradigm, no visual MMN was elicited in this group, and so no conclusions regarding the lateralisation of visual MMN could be made. Results suggested that both hemispheres were equally capable of processing an illusory figure.
As a method of presenting visual test stimuli without conscious perception, a continuous visual stream paradigm was developed that used a briefly presented checkerboard stimulus combined with masking for exploring stimulus detection below and above subjective levels of perception. A correlate of very early cortical processing at a latency of 60-80 ms (CI) was elicited whether stimuli were reported as seen or unseen. Differences in visual processing were only evident at a latency of 90 ms (CII) implying that this component may represent a correlate of visual consciousness/awareness.
Finally, an oddball sequence was introduced into the visual stream masking paradigm to investigate whether visual MMN responses could be recorded without conscious perception. The stimuli comprised of black and white checkerboard elements differing only in terms of their orientation to form an x or a +. Visual MMN was not recorded when participants were unable to report seeing the stimulus. Results therefore suggest that behavioural identification of the stimuli was required for the elicitation of visual MMN and that visual MMN may require some attentional resources.
On the basis of these studies it is concluded that visual MMN is not entirely independent of attention. Further, the combination of clinical and non-clinical investigations provides a unique opportunity to study the characterisation and localisation of putative mechanisms related to conscious and non-conscious visual processing.