The midposterior fundus of the Sylvian fissure in the human brain is central to the cortical processing of vestibular cues. At least two vestibular areas are located at this site: the parietoinsular vestibular cortex (PIVC) and the posterior insular cortex (PIC). It is now well established that activity in sensory systems is subject to cross-modal attention effects. Attending to a stimulus in one sensory modality enhances activity in the corresponding cortical sensory system, but simultaneously suppresses activity in other sensory systems. Here, we wanted to probe whether such cross-modal attention effects also target the vestibular system. To this end, we used a visual multiple-object tracking task. By parametrically varying the number of tracked targets, we could measure the effect of attentional load on the PIVC and the PIC while holding the perceptual load constant. Participants performed the tracking task during functional magnetic resonance imaging. Results show that, compared with passive viewing of object motion, activity during object tracking was suppressed in the PIVC and enhanced in the PIC. Greater attentional load, induced by increasing the number of tracked targets, was associated with a corresponding increase in the suppression of activity in the PIVC. Activity in the anterior part of the PIC decreased with increasing load, whereas load effects were absent in the posterior PIC. Results of a control experiment show that attention-induced suppression in the PIVC is stronger than any suppression evoked by the visual stimulus per se. Overall, our results suggest that attention has a cross-modal modulatory effect on the vestibular cortex during visual object tracking.
SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT In this study we investigate cross-modal attention effects in the human vestibular cortex. We applied the visual multiple-object tracking task because it is known to evoke attentional load effects on neural activity in visual motion-processing and attention-processing areas. Here we demonstrate a load-dependent effect of attention on the activation in the vestibular cortex, despite constant visual motion stimulation. We find that activity in the parietoinsular vestibular cortex is more strongly suppressed the greater the attentional load on the visual tracking task. These findings suggest cross-modal attentional modulation in the vestibular cortex.