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Sequential perceptual learning of letter identification and “uncrowding” in normal peripheral vision: Effects of task, training order, and cholinergic enhancement


Human adults with normal vision are capable of improving performance on visual tasks through repeated practice. Previous work has shown that enhancing synaptic levels of acetylcholine (ACh) in healthy human adults with donepezil (trade name: Aricept) can increase the magnitude and specificity of perceptual learning (PL) for motion direction discrimination in the perifovea. In the current study, we ask whether increasing the synaptic levels of ACh in healthy human adults with donepezil boosts learning of low-contrast isolated letter identification and high-contrast flanked letter identification in normal peripheral vision. Two groups of observers performed sequential training over multiple days while ingesting donepezil. One group trained on isolated low-contrast letters in Phase 1 and crowded high-contrast letters in Phase 2, and the other group performed the reverse sequence, thereby enabling us to differentiate possible effects of drug and training order on PL of letter identification. All testing and training were performed monocularly in peripheral vision, at an eccentricity of 10 degrees along the lower vertical meridian. Our experimental design allowed us to evaluate the effects of sequential training and to ask whether increasing cholinergic signaling boosted learning and/or transfer of low-contrast isolated letter identification and high-contrast flanked letter identification in normal peripheral vision. We found that both groups improved on each of the two tasks. However, our results revealed an effect of training task order on flanked letter identification: Observers who trained on isolated targets first showed rapid early improvement in flanked letter identification but little to no additional improvement after 30 training blocks, while observers who first trained with flanked letters improved gradually on flanked letter identification over the entire 100-block course of training. In addition, we found no effect of donepezil on PL of either isolated or flanked letter identification. In other words, donepezil neither boosted nor blocked learning to identify isolated low-contrast letters or learning to uncrowd in normal peripheral vision.

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