J Cogn Neurosci. 2014 Apr 04. doi: 10.1162/jocn_a_00641. [Epub ahead of print]

Perceptual Learning of Simple Stimuli Modifies Stimulus Representations in Posterior Inferior Temporal Cortex

Adab HZ, Popivanov ID, Vanduffel W, Vogels R.

Abstract

Practicing simple visual detection and discrimination tasks improves performance, a signature of adult brain plasticity. The neural mechanisms that underlie these changes in performance are still unclear. Previously, we reported that practice in discriminating the orientation of noisy gratings (coarse orientation discrimination) increased the ability of single neurons in the early visual area V4 to discriminate the trained stimuli. Here, we ask whether practice in this task also changes the stimulus tuning properties of later visual cortical areas, despite the use of simple grating stimuli. To identify candidate areas, we used fMRI to map activations to noisy gratings in trained rhesus monkeys, revealing a region in the posterior inferior temporal (PIT) cortex. Subsequent single unit recordings in PIT showed that the degree of orientation selectivity was similar to that of area V4 and that the PIT neurons discriminated the trained orientations better than the untrained orientations. Unlike in previous single unit studies of perceptual learning in early visual cortex, more PIT neurons preferred trained compared with untrained orientations. The effects of training on the responses to the grating stimuli were also present when the animals were performing a difficult orthogonal task in which the grating stimuli were task-irrelevant, suggesting that the training effect does not need attention to be expressed. The PIT neurons could support orientation discrimination at low signal-to-noise levels. These findings suggest that extensive practice in discriminating simple grating stimuli not only affects early visual cortex but also changes the stimulus tuning of a late visual cortical area.

PMID: 24702452