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New slant on vision research: Neurons sensitive to viewing angle

MINNEAPOLIS / ST. PAUL--Mistakes made by human subjects in identifying the facing direction of faces, cars or meaningless objects have yielded evidence that the brain contains nerve cells, or neurons, whose job is to encode the viewing angle of objects. It is well known that certain neurons respond to color, motion, edges and other aspects of our environment. Now, University of Minnesota researchers have found that our visual cortex contains neurons that tell us, for example, whether a face is turned in our direction or not. The work adds to knowledge of how the brain collects and processes visual information leading to the recognition of objects, and it may inform the design of machine vision. The study will be published in the March 3 issue of the journal Neuron.

The brain relies on millions of neurons to report the visual elements of our environment. But, for example, if every neuron geared to motion fired in response to any motion whatsoever, then we couldn't tell whether a train was chugging into the distance or bearing down on us. Instead, to gain a complete picture of the world, our brains appear to contain separate, but physically intertwined, populations of neurons that respond to only one small aspect of our environment. The brain then bases its interpretation of images largely on which neurons fire.

"The issue is, what is the underlying neural mechanism that supports the ability to recognize objects viewed from different angles?" said Sheng He, associate professor of psychology, who directed the study. "This study supports the idea that we have explicit representations in our brains for specific views of objects." The study was carried out jointly with Fang Fang, a graduate student in He's laboratory.

The researchers presented volunteers with the image of a face, a car or a meaningless geometric object on the computer. In each case, the first image--called the adapting image--was turned to one side. After a very brief pause,
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