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Perceptual Learning: Cortical Changes When Cats Learn a New Trick

Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, Department of Radiology, Massachusetts General Hospital, Charlestown, MA, USA.
Current biology: CB (Impact Factor: 9.92). 07/2010; 20(13):R557-8. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2010.05.004
Source: PubMed

ABSTRACT A new study has found that the tuning properties of neurons in the primary visual cortex of cats change as they learn an orientation-discrimination task, casting new light on the neuronal basis of perceptual learning.

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    ABSTRACT: This study aimed to identify neural mechanisms that underlie perceptual learning in a visual-discrimination task. We trained two monkeys (Macaca mulatta) to determine the direction of visual motion while we recorded from their middle temporal area (MT), which in trained monkeys represents motion information that is used to solve the task, and lateral intraparietal area (LIP), which represents the transformation of motion information into a saccadic choice. During training, improved behavioral sensitivity to weak motion signals was accompanied by changes in motion-driven responses of neurons in LIP, but not in MT. The time course and magnitude of the changes in LIP correlated with the changes in behavioral sensitivity throughout training. Thus, for this task, perceptual learning does not appear to involve improvements in how sensory information is represented in the brain, but rather how the sensory representation is interpreted to form the decision that guides behavior.
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    ABSTRACT: Training can significantly improve performance on even the most basic visual tasks, such as detecting a faint patch of light or determining the orientation of a bar (for reviews, see ). The neural mechanisms of visual learning, however, remain controversial. One simple way to improve behavior is to increase the overall neural response to the trained stimulus by increasing the number or gain of responsive neurons. Learning of this type has been observed in other sensory modalities, where training increases the number of receptive fields that cover the trained stimulus. Here, we show that visual learning can selectively increase the overall response to trained stimuli in primary visual cortex (V1). We used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure neural signals before and after one month of practice at detecting very low-contrast oriented patterns. Training increased V1 response for practiced orientations relative to control orientations by an average of 39%, and the magnitude of the change in V1 correlated moderately well with the magnitude of changes in detection performance. The elevation of V1 activity by training likely results from an increase in the number of neurons responding to the trained stimulus or an increase in response gain.
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