Modulation of mismatch negativity by stimulus deviance and modality of attention.
We studied the effect of attention on the processing of auditory sensory inputs by means of the mismatch negativity (MMN) potential, which can be derived from event-related EEG. A series of frequent standard and rare deviant auditory stimuli were presented to 20 healthy subjects in two recording sessions about five weeks apart. Deviant stimuli were either low or highly deviant as compared to the standard stimulus. While MMN was recorded, subjects were performing a visual and, subsequently, an auditory discrimination task. Directing attention towards the auditory task was associated with increased MMN amplitude only in response to low deviant stimuli and only in the first recording session. No change of MMN amplitude was found when directing attention towards the visual task or when MMN was recorded in response to highly deviant auditory stimuli. The latter may trigger an involuntary switch of attention, thereby overwriting the effect of task-directed attention. Conversely, the effects of attention on the processing of low deviant stimuli appear to be fragile and diminish with increasing automaticity of task execution.