Transient pupil response is modulated by contrast-based saliency

Chin An Wang, Susan E. Boehnke, Laurent Itti, Douglas P. Munoz

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76 Scopus citations


The sudden appearance of a novel stimulus in the environment initiates a series of orienting responses that include coordinated shifts of gaze and attention, and also transient changes in pupil size. Although numerous studies have identified a significant effect of stimulus saliency on shifts of gaze and attention, saliency effects on pupil size are less understood. To examine salience-evoked pupil responses, we presented visual, auditory, or audiovisual stimuli while monkeys fixated a central visual spot. Transient pupil dilation was elicited after visual stimulus presentation regardless of target luminance relative to background, and auditory stimuli also evoked similar pupil responses. Importantly, the evoked pupil response was modulated by contrast-based saliency, with faster and larger pupil responses following the presentation of more salient stimuli. The initial transient component of pupil dilation was qualitatively similar to that evoked by weak microstimulation of the midbrain superior colliculus. The pupil responses elicited by audiovisual stimuli were well predicted by a linear summation of each modality response. Together, the results suggest that the transient pupil response, as one component of orienting, is modulated by contrast-based saliency, and the superior colliculus is likely involved in its coordination.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)408-417
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2014


  • Microstimulation
  • Orienting
  • Pupil response
  • Saliency
  • Stimulus contrast
  • Superior colliculus


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