Introduction: The perception of a target stimulus can be impaired by a subsequent mask stimulus, even if they do not overlap temporally or spatially. This “backward masking” is commonly used to modulate a subject's awareness of a target and to characterize the temporal dynamics of vision. Masking is most apparent with brief, low-contrast targets, making detection difficult even in the absence of a mask. Although necessary to investigate the underlying neural mechanisms, evaluating masking phenomena in animal models is particularly challenging, as the task structure and critical stimulus features to be attended must be learned incrementally through rewards and feedback. Despite the increasing popularity of rodents in vision research, it is unclear if they are susceptible to masking illusions. Methods: We characterized how spatially surrounding masks affected the detection of sine-wave grating targets. Results: In humans (n = 5) and rats (n = 7), target detection improved with contrast and was reduced by the presence of a mask. After controlling for biases to respond induced by the presence of the mask, a clear reduction in detectability was caused by masks. This reduction was evident when data were averaged across all animals, but was only individually significant in three animals. Conclusions: While perceptual masking occurs in rats, it may be difficult to observe consistently in individual animals because the complexity of the requisite task pushes the limits of their behavioral capabilities. We suggest methods to ensure that masking, and similarly subtle effects, can be reliably characterized in future experiments.
- backward masking
- orientation detection