A region of the brain known to play a key role in visual and spatial processing has a parallel function: sorting visual information into categories, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Chicago.
Primates are known to have a remarkable ability to place visual stimuli into familiar and meaningful categories, such as fruit or vegetables. They can also direct their spatial attention to different locations in a scene and make spatially-targeted movements, such as reaching.
The study, published in the March issue of Neuron, shows that these very different types of information can be simultaneously encoded within the posterior parietal cortex. The research brings scientists a step closer to understanding how the brain interprets visual stimuli and solves complex tasks.
"We found that multiple functions can be mapped onto a particular region of the brain and even onto individual brain cells in that region," said study author David Freedman, PhD, assistant professor of neurobiology at the University of Chicago. "These functions overlap. This particular brain area, even its individual neurons, can independently encode both spatial and cognitive signals."
Freedman studies the effects of learning on the brain and how information is stored in short-term memory, with a focus on the areas that process visual stimuli. To examine this phenomenon, he has taught monkeys to play a simple video game in which they learn to assign moving visual patterns into categories.
"The task is a bit like a baseball umpire calling balls and strikes," he said, "since the monkeys have to sort the various motion patterns into two groups, or categories."
The monkeys master the tasks over a few weeks of training. Once they do, the researchers record electrical signals from parietal lobe neurons while the subjects perform the categorization task. By measuring electrical activity patterns of these neurons, the resea
|Contact: John Easton|
University of Chicago Medical Center