The relevance of environmental features can guide stimulus processing. However, it remains unclear how processing is adjusted when feature relevance is uncertain. We hypothesized that (a) heightened uncertainty would shift cortical networks from a rhythmic, selective processing-oriented state toward an asynchronous (“excited”) state that boosts sensitivity to all stimulus features, and that (b) the thalamus provides a subcortical nexus for such uncertainty-related shifts. Here, we had young adults attend to varying numbers of task-relevant features during EEG and fMRI acquisition to test these hypotheses. Behavioral modeling and electrophysiological signatures revealed that greater uncertainty lowered the rate of evidence accumulation for individual stimulus features, shifted the cortex from a rhythmic to an asynchronous/excited regime, and heightened neuromodulatory arousal.
Fig: Hypotheses and task design.
Crucially, this unified constellation of within-person effects was dominantly reflected in the uncertainty-driven upregulation of thalamic activity. We argue that neuromodulatory processes involving the thalamus play a central role in how the brain modulates neural excitability in the face of momentary uncertainty.
Kosciessa, J.Q., Lindenberger, U. & Garrett, D.D. Thalamocortical excitability modulation guides human perception under uncertainty.Nat Commun 12, 2430 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-021-22511-7