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Everything in its place: Researchers identify brain cells used to categorize images

e much is known about how the brain processes simple visual features such as colors, angles, and motion-directions, less is known about how the brain learns and recognizes the meaning of stimuli. The process of grouping related visual images into categories allows the brain to organize stimuli according to their meaning and makes it possible for us to quickly make sense of our surroundings.

In these experiments, monkeys were taught to play a simple computer game in which they grouped members of a set of visual motion patterns into one of two categories. Freedman and senior author John Assad, PhD, HMS associate professor of neurobiology, then monitored the activity of neurons in two interconnected brain areas, the parietal cortex and the middle temporal area, while the monkeys played the categorization game. The activity of parietal neurons mirrored the monkeys' decisions about which of the two categories each visual pattern belonged. In contrast, neurons in the middle temporal area were more sensitive to differences in the visual appearance among the set of motion patterns and did not encode their category membership.

Category representations in the parietal cortex also changed dramatically with learning and experience. Over the course of several weeks, the monkeys were retrained to group the same visual patterns into two new categories. Parietal cortex activity was completely reorganized as a result of this retraining and encoded the visual patterns according to the newly learned categories.

"This research helps to further the understanding of how the brain learns and recognizes the significance, or meaning, of visual images and demonstrates that learning new categories can cause dramatic and long-lasting changes in brain activity," says Freedman. "We are continuing this work to determine if the parietal cortex is specialized for processing motion-based categories or if it plays a more general role in categorizing other types of visual stimuli, such
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Contact: John Lacey
public_affairs@hms.harvard.edu
617-432-0442
Harvard Medical School
27-Aug-2006


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