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Limited resources for the in-depth processing of external stimuli make it necessary to select only relevant information from our surroundings and to ignore irrelevant stimuli. Attentional mechanisms facilitate this selection via top-down modulation of stimulus representations in the brain. Previous research has indicated that acetylcholine (ACh) modulates this influence of attention on stimulus processing. However, the role of muscarinic receptors as well as the specific mechanism of cholinergic modulation remains unclear. Here we investigated the influence of ACh on feature-based, top-down control of stimulus processing via muscarinic receptors by using a contingent capture paradigm which specifically tests attentional shifts toward uninformative cue stimuli which display one of the target defining features In a double-blind, placebo controlled study we measured the impact of the muscarinic receptor antagonist scopolamine on behavioral and electrophysiological measures of contingent attentional capture. The results demonstrated all the signs of functional contingent capture, i.e., attentional shifts toward cued locations reflected in increased amplitudes of N1 and N2Pc components, under placebo conditions. However, scopolamine did not affect behavioral or electrophysiological measures of contingent capture. Instead, scopolamine reduced the amplitude of the distractor-evoked Pd component which has recently been associated with active suppression of irrelevant distractor information. The findings suggest a general cholinergic modulation of top-down control during distractor processing.
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