The brain is limited in its capacity to consciously process information, necessitating gating of information. While conscious perception is robustly associated with sustained, recurrent interactions between widespread cortical regions, subcortical regions, including the striatum, influence cortical activity. Here, we examined if the ventral striatum, given its ability to modulate cortical information flow, contributes to conscious perception. Using intracranial EEG, we recorded ventral striatum activity while 7 patients performed an attentional blink task in which they had to detect two targets (T1 and T2) in a stream of distractors. Typically, when T2 follows T1 within 100-500ms, it is often not perceived (i.e., the attentional blink). We found that conscious T2 perception was influenced and signaled by ventral striatal activity. Specifically, the failure to perceive T2 was foreshadowed by a T1-induced increase in alpha and low beta oscillatory activity as early as 80ms post-T1, indicating that the attentional blink to T2 may be due to very early T1-driven attentional capture. Moreover, only consciously perceived targets were associated with an increase in theta activity between 200-400ms. These unique findings shed new light on the mechanisms that give rise to the attentional blink by revealing that conscious target perception may be determined by T1 processing at a much earlier processing stage than traditionally believed. More generally, they indicate that ventral striatum activity may contribute to conscious perception, presumably by gating cortical information flow.
SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT: What determines whether we become aware of a piece of information or not? Conscious access has been robustly associated with activity within a distributed network of cortical regions. Using intracranial electrophysiological recordings during an attentional blink task, we tested the idea that the ventral striatum, because of its ability to modulate cortical information flow, may contribute to conscious perception. We find that conscious perception is influenced, and signaled by ventral striatal activity; Short-latency (80-140ms) striatal responses to a first target determined conscious perception of a second target. Moreover, conscious perception of the second target was signaled by longer-latency (200-400ms) striatal activity. These results suggest that the ventral striatum may be part of a subcortical network that influences conscious experience.