Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Neural balls and strikes: Where categories live in the brain

16.01.2012
Brain circuits for visual categorization revealed by new experiments

Hundreds of times during a baseball game, the home plate umpire must instantaneously categorize a fast-moving pitch as a ball or a strike. In new research from the University of Chicago, scientists have pinpointed an area in the brain where these kinds of visual categories are encoded.

While monkeys played a computer game in which they had to quickly determine the category of a moving visual stimulus, neural recordings revealed brain activity that encoded those categories. Surprisingly, a region of the brain known as the posterior parietal cortex demonstrated faster and stronger category-specific signals than the prefrontal cortex, an area that is typically associated with higher level cognitive functions.

"This is as close as we've come to the source of these abstract signals" said David Freedman, PhD, assistant professor of neurobiology at the University of Chicago. "One of the main points this study suggests is that the parietal cortex is more involved in the categorization process than we had expected."

Organizing the chaos of the surrounding world into categories is one of the brain's key functions. For instance, the brain can almost immediately classify a broad range of four-wheeled vehicles into the general category of "car," allowing a person to quickly take the appropriate action. Neuroscientists such as Freedman and his laboratory team are searching for the brain areas responsible for storing and assigning these categories.

"The number of decisions we make per minute is remarkable," Freedman said. "Understanding that process from a basic physiological perspective is bound to lead to ways to improve the process and to help people make better decisions. This is particularly important for patients suffering from neurological illnesses, brain injuries or mental illness that affect decision making."

Ten years ago, experiments by Freedman and his colleagues found neurons were encoding category signals in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), a region thought to control important mental tasks such as decision making, rule learning and short-term memory. But in subsequent experiments, Freedman found a region of the parietal cortex called the lateral intraparietal area (LIP), thought to be primarily involved in basic visual and spatial processing, also encoded category information.

For the new study, to be published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, Freedman and graduate student Sruthi Swaminathan conducted the first direct comparison of prefrontal cortex and parietal cortex during categorization tasks. Monkeys were taught a simple game in which they classified dots moving in different directions into one of two categories. The subjects were shown two sets of moving dots one second apart, then held or released a joystick based on whether the two stimuli belonged to the same category or different categories.

During the task, scientists recorded neural activity in PFC and LIP. Neurons in both areas changed their activity according to the learned categories; for example, increasing firing for one category and decreasing for the other. However, category-specific neurons in LIP exhibited stronger and faster (by about 70 milliseconds) changes in activity during the task than those recorded from PFC.

"The relative timing of signals in the two brain areas gives us an important clue about their roles in solving the categorization task. Since category information appeared earlier in parietal cortex than prefrontal cortex, it suggests that parietal cortex might be more involved in the visual categorization process, at least during this task," Freedman said.

More evidence for the primacy of parietal cortex was provided by an experiment where scientists threw their subjects a curveball. The monkeys were shown an ambiguous set of moving dots on the border between the two learned categories, then asked to compare them with a second set of non-ambiguous dots — a test with no correct answer. The subjects were required to make a decision about which category the ambiguous stimuli belonged to, and once again LIP neurons corresponded to that decision more closely than PFC.

"During the decision process, parietal cortex activity is not just correlated — it even predicts ahead of time what the monkey will tell you," Swaminathan said. "You can record neuronal activity in parietal cortex and, in many cases, predict with great reliability what the monkey will report."

In humans, the ambiguous stimuli would be similar to an umpire deciding whether a borderline pitch was a ball or a strike — a highly specialized real world example of the visual motion categorization task used in these experiments, Freedman said.

"In a lot of ways, that's the process we hope to understand, this umpire calling balls and strikes," he said. "It's an interesting learned behavior that's highly critical for an individual to perform with great reliability, and it's a spatial categorization with a sharp boundary, so we think it's the same process."

Next, Freedman's laboratory hopes to look at how the brain changes during the category-learning process, examining whether the category signals first arise in the parietal cortex or start in the prefrontal cortex before transferring to visual regions of the brain. The results may help scientists reverse engineer some of the brain's most important tasks in daily life.

"Making effective decisions and evaluating every situation that you're in moment by moment is critical for successful behavior," Freedman said. "We're really interested in what changes occur in the brain to allow you to recognize not just the features of a stimulus, but what it is and what it means."

The paper, "Preferential encoding of visual categories in parietal cortex compared to prefrontal cortex," will be published online Jan. 15 by the journal Nature Neuroscience [doi: 10.1038/nn.3016]. Funding for the study was provided by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Brain Research Foundation.

For more news from the University of Chicago Medical Center, follow us on Twitter at @UChicagoMed, or visit our Facebook page at facebook.com/UChicagoMed, our research blog at sciencelife.uchospitals.edu, or our newsroom at uchospitals.edu/news/.

Robert Mitchum | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.uchospitals.edu

More articles from Health and Medicine:

nachricht Study suggests possible new target for treating and preventing Alzheimer's
02.12.2016 | Oregon Health & Science University

nachricht The first analysis of Ewing's sarcoma methyloma opens doors to new treatments
01.12.2016 | IDIBELL-Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute

All articles from Health and Medicine >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Novel silicon etching technique crafts 3-D gradient refractive index micro-optics

A multi-institutional research collaboration has created a novel approach for fabricating three-dimensional micro-optics through the shape-defined formation of porous silicon (PSi), with broad impacts in integrated optoelectronics, imaging, and photovoltaics.

Working with colleagues at Stanford and The Dow Chemical Company, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign fabricated 3-D birefringent...

Im Focus: Quantum Particles Form Droplets

In experiments with magnetic atoms conducted at extremely low temperatures, scientists have demonstrated a unique phase of matter: The atoms form a new type of quantum liquid or quantum droplet state. These so called quantum droplets may preserve their form in absence of external confinement because of quantum effects. The joint team of experimental physicists from Innsbruck and theoretical physicists from Hannover report on their findings in the journal Physical Review X.

“Our Quantum droplets are in the gas phase but they still drop like a rock,” explains experimental physicist Francesca Ferlaino when talking about the...

Im Focus: MADMAX: Max Planck Institute for Physics takes up axion research

The Max Planck Institute for Physics (MPP) is opening up a new research field. A workshop from November 21 - 22, 2016 will mark the start of activities for an innovative axion experiment. Axions are still only purely hypothetical particles. Their detection could solve two fundamental problems in particle physics: What dark matter consists of and why it has not yet been possible to directly observe a CP violation for the strong interaction.

The “MADMAX” project is the MPP’s commitment to axion research. Axions are so far only a theoretical prediction and are difficult to detect: on the one hand,...

Im Focus: Molecules change shape when wet

Broadband rotational spectroscopy unravels structural reshaping of isolated molecules in the gas phase to accommodate water

In two recent publications in the Journal of Chemical Physics and in the Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters, researchers around Melanie Schnell from the Max...

Im Focus: Fraunhofer ISE Develops Highly Compact, High Frequency DC/DC Converter for Aviation

The efficiency of power electronic systems is not solely dependent on electrical efficiency but also on weight, for example, in mobile systems. When the weight of relevant components and devices in airplanes, for instance, is reduced, fuel savings can be achieved and correspondingly greenhouse gas emissions decreased. New materials and components based on gallium nitride (GaN) can help to reduce weight and increase the efficiency. With these new materials, power electronic switches can be operated at higher switching frequency, resulting in higher power density and lower material costs.

Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE together with partners have investigated how these materials can be used to make power...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

ICTM Conference 2017: Production technology for turbomachine manufacturing of the future

16.11.2016 | Event News

Innovation Day Laser Technology – Laser Additive Manufacturing

01.11.2016 | Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

 
Latest News

UTSA study describes new minimally invasive device to treat cancer and other illnesses

02.12.2016 | Medical Engineering

Plasma-zapping process could yield trans fat-free soybean oil product

02.12.2016 | Agricultural and Forestry Science

What do Netflix, Google and planetary systems have in common?

02.12.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>