Famous faces activate contextual associations in the parahippocampal cortex.
ABSTRACT The parahippocampal cortex (PHC) has been traditionally implicated both in place processing and in episodic memory. How could the same cortical region mediate these cognitive functions that seem quite different? We have recently proposed that the PHC should be seen as more generally mediating contextual associative processing, which is required for both navigation and memory. We therefore predicted that any associative objects should activate the PHC. To test this generalization, we investigated the extent to which common stimuli that are nonspatial by nature, namely faces, activate the PHC, although their perception is typically associated with other cortical structures. Specifically, we compared the activation elicited by famous faces, which are highly associated with rich pictorial and contextual information (e.g., Tom Cruise) and are not associated with a specific place, with activation elicited by unfamiliar faces. Consistent with our prediction, contrasting famous with unfamiliar faces revealed significant activation within the PHC. Taken collectively, these findings indicate that the PHC should be regarded as mediating contextual associations in general and not necessarily spatial or episodic information.
- SourceAvailable from: Alexa Morcom[show abstract] [hide abstract]
ABSTRACT: Event-related functional MRI (fMRI) was used to investigate the neural correlates of memory encoding as a function of age. While fMRI data were obtained, 14 younger (mean age 21 years) and 14 older subjects (mean age 68 years) made animacy decisions about words. Recognition memory for these words was tested at two delays such that older subjects' performance at the short delay was comparable to that of the young subjects at the long delay. This allowed age-associated changes in the neural correlates of encoding to be dissociated from the correlates of differential recognition performance. Activity in left inferior prefrontal cortex and the left hippocampal formation was greater for subsequently recognized words in both age groups, consistent with the findings of previous studies in young adults. In the prefrontal cortex, these 'subsequent memory effects' were, however, left-lateralized in the younger group but bilateral in the older subjects. In addition, for the younger group only, greater activity for remembered words was observed in anterior inferior temporal cortex, as were reversed effects ('subsequent forgetting' effects) in anterior prefrontal regions. The data indicate that older subjects engage much of the same neural circuitry as younger subjects when encoding new memories. However, the findings also point to age-related differences in both prefrontal and temporal activity during successful episodic encoding.Brain 02/2003; 126(Pt 1):213-29. · 9.92 Impact Factor
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ABSTRACT: As people find their way through their environment, objects at navigationally relevant locations can serve as crucial landmarks. The parahippocampal gyrus has previously been shown to be involved in object and scene recognition. In the present study, we investigated the neural representation of navigationally relevant locations. Healthy human adults viewed a route through a virtual museum with objects placed at intersections (decision points) or at simple turns (non-decision points). Event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data were acquired during subsequent recognition of the objects in isolation. Neural activity in the parahippocampal gyrus reflected the navigational relevance of an object's location in the museum. Parahippocampal responses were selectively increased for objects that occurred at decision points, independent of attentional demands. This increase occurred for forgotten as well as remembered objects, showing implicit retrieval of navigational information. The automatic storage of relevant object location in the parahippocampal gyrus provides a part of the neural mechanism underlying successful navigation.Nature Neuroscience 07/2004; 7(6):673-7. · 15.25 Impact Factor
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ABSTRACT: Face recognition is a unique visual skill enabling us to recognize a large number of person identities, despite many differences in the visual image from one exposure to another due to changes in viewpoint, illumination, or simply passage of time. Previous familiarity with a face may facilitate recognition when visual changes are important. Using event-related fMRI in 13 healthy observers, we studied the brain systems involved in extracting face identity independent of modifications in visual appearance during a repetition priming paradigm in which two different photographs of the same face (either famous or unfamiliar) were repeated at varying delays. We found that functionally defined face-selective areas in the lateral fusiform cortex showed no repetition effects for faces across changes in image views, irrespective of pre-existing familiarity, suggesting that face representations formed in this region do not generalize across different visual images, even for well-known faces. Repetition of different but easily recognizable views of an unfamiliar face produced selective repetition decreases in a medial portion of the right fusiform gyrus, whereas distinct views of a famous face produced repetition decreases in left middle temporal and left inferior frontal cortex selectively, but no decreases in fusiform cortex. These findings reveal that different views of the same familiar face may not be integrated within a single representation at initial perceptual stages subserved by the fusiform face areas, but rather involve later processing stages where more abstract identity information is accessed.NeuroImage 03/2005; 24(4):1214-24. · 6.25 Impact Factor
Famous Faces Activate Contextual
Associations in the Parahippocampal
Moshe Bar1, Elissa Aminoff1and Alumit Ishai2
1Martinos Center at Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard
Medical School, Charlestown, MA 02129, USA and2Institute of
Neuroradiology, University of Zurich, 8057, Switzerland
The parahippocampal cortex (PHC) has been traditionally impli-
cated both in place processing and in episodic memory. How could
the same cortical region mediate these cognitive functions that
seem quite different? We have recently proposed that the PHC
should be seen as more generally mediating contextual associative
processing, which is required for both navigation and memory. We
therefore predicted that any associative objects should activate the
PHC. To test this generalization, we investigated the extent to
which common stimuli that are nonspatial by nature, namely faces,
activate the PHC, although their perception is typically associated
with other cortical structures. Specifically, we compared the
activation elicited by famous faces, which are highly associated
with rich pictorial and contextual information (e.g., Tom Cruise) and
are not associated with a specific place, with activation elicited by
unfamiliar faces. Consistent with our prediction, contrasting
famous with unfamiliar faces revealed significant activation within
the PHC. Taken collectively, these findings indicate that the PHC
should be regarded as mediating contextual associations in general
and not necessarily spatial or episodic information.
Keywords: associations, context, face processing, parahippocampal
The parahippocampal cortex (PHC) in the medial temporal
lobe has been involved in the representation and processing of
spatial, place-related information (Aguirre et al. 1996; Maguire
et al. 1997; Epstein and Kanwisher 1998; Bohbot et al. 2000;
Mellet et al. 2000; Levy et al. 2001), and a significant subregion
within the PHC has been termed ‘‘parahippocampal place area’’
(PPA) (Epstein and Kanwisher 1998). In the community that
studies memory, however, the PHC has been widely known to
subserve episodic memory (Gabrieli et al. 1997; Brewer et al.
1998; Wagner et al. 1998; Schacter and Wagner 1999; Davachi
et al. 2003; Ranganath et al. 2004; Squire et al. 2004). Therefore,
it has previously been unclear how could the same region
mediate seemingly different cognitive functions (Fig. 1).
Although spatial processing functions are generally different
from episodic memory, they rely on similar elements. We have
recently proposed that these shared elements are provided by
contextual associations (Bar and Aminoff 2003; Bar 2004;
Aminoff et al. 2007) and showed that the PHC is differentially
activated for a wide range of familiar and newly learned
contextual associations (Fig. 2).
In our initial experiments (Bar and Aminoff 2003), we
compared the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)
activation elicited when participants viewed pictures of
individual objects that are highly associated with a certain
context (e.g., a cowboy hat) with the activation elicited by
? 2007 The Authors
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individual objects that were not strongly associated with any
context (e.g., a camera). Contextual associations differentially
activated a network including the PHC, retrosplenial complex,
and parts of the medial prefrontal cortex (Fig. 2A). Activation
within this network has since been found to be robust and
highly replicable (Bar and Aminoff 2003; Bar 2004; Aminoff
et al. 2007; Diana et al. forthcoming). Standardized localizer
information can be found at http://barlab.mgh.harvard.edu/
Given that the PHC activation elicited by strongly contextual
objects seemed to overlap with the activation reported in the
PPA (Epstein and Kanwisher 1998; Epstein et al. 1999), it was
unclear whether our activation was mainly due to contextual
associations or the result of an indirect activation of specific
places, which in turn activated the PPA. We therefore
conducted a second study where the highly contextual objects
were clearly separated for spatial contextual objects (e.g.,
a construction hat) and highly contextual objects that are
associated with nonspatial contexts (e.g., cupid). Both con-
ditions activated the same contextual network (Fig. 2B).
Interestingly, we found segregation in the PHC between the
activation elicited by spatial and nonspatial contexts, whereby
spatial contexts activate primarily the posterior part of the PHC
and the nonspatial contexts activate a more anterior, adjacent
part of the PHC (Bar and Aminoff 2003).
In a third study (Aminoff et al. 2007), we created novel
objects and relations, such that participants did not have any
subjective associations and memories with the new stimuli
beyond those on which they were trained prior to scanning.
The findings of this experiment (see Fig. 2c) corroborated our
previous findings and thus added support to our proposal that
the PHC is involved in both spatial and nonspatial contextual
Associations are required to link landmarks to places in
spatial processes, and contextual associations are needed to
glue the constituents of an episode in memory. Consequently,
by modifying the ascription of a role to the PHC to be
mediating contextual associative representations and pro-
cessing in general, findings from various experiments can be
naturally reconciled. A critical test of our hypothesis is
whether complex stimuli with contextual but not spatial
associations would also activate the PHC. Therefore, we
compared here PHC activation elicited by famous faces, which
evoke a large amount of contextual associations that are not
particularly spatial, with the PHC activation elicited by un-
Face perception is a highly developed visual skill in humans,
which is mediated by activation in a distributed neural system
that encompasses visual, limbic, and prefrontal regions (Ishai
Cerebral Cortex Advance Access published October 12, 2007
et al. 2005; Fairhall and Ishai 2007). Specifically, the cortical
network that mediates face perception includes the fusiform
gyrus, an extrastriate region that processes the identification of
individuals (Kanwisher et al. 1997; Ishai et al. 1999; Grill-Spector
et al. 2004); the superior temporal sulcus (Hoffman and Haxby
2000; Puce et al. 2003); the amygdala and insula (Breiter et al.
1996; Ishai et al. 2004); the inferior frontal gyrus, where
semantic aspects are processed (Leveroni et al. 2000; Ishai
et al. 2002); and regions of the reward circuitry, including the
nucleus accumbens and orbitofrontalcortex (Aharon et al.2001;
O’Doherty et al. 2003; Kranz and Ishai 2006; Ishai 2007). In most
previous studies, the response to faces was contrasted with
(e.g., Kanwisher et al. 1997) or with scrambled faces to localize
the underlying network (e.g., Ishai et al. 2002; Ishai et al. 2004).
Familiar (e.g., famous) faces elicit enhanced activation in
various face-responsive regions (Ishai et al. 2005). In addition,
however, famous faces are associated with rich amount of
contextual and pictorial information, without being associated
with particular spatial information (e.g., Angelina Jolie’s face
elicits associations about her appearance in Mr. and Mrs.
Smith, her liaison with Brad Pitt, her adopted children, and her
humanitarian work in Africa). Therefore, famous faces are
optimal for testing our critical generalization and for contrast-
ing the 2 hypotheses: If the PHC contains a place-specific
module (PPA), then it should not be particularly responsive to
faces that have no pronounced spatial associations. However, if,
as we propose, the PHC more generally mediates contextual
Figure 2. Summary of our previous studies of contextual associations. (A) Medial
activation for the contrast between strong contextually associative objects and
weakly contextual objects. This statistical map was derived from averaging together
this strong versus weak contrast from 6 different experiments, of which various tasks
were used, with a total of 68 participants (Bar et al. 2007). (B) A demonstration that
both objects strongly related to specific spatial context, or a place, and objects
strongly related to a nonspatial context (e.g., romance) significantly activate the PHC
when compared with weak contextual objects (Bar and Aminoff 2003). (C) A further
demonstration that the PHC processes contextual associations. Participants were
trained to learn both spatial and nonspatial associations between novel shapes. At
test, participants were scanned when only viewing 1 shape at a time. Statistical
maps show the comparison of viewing shapes associated with a spatial (left) or
a nonspatial (right) context compared with no-context shapes (Aminoff et al. 2007).
Figure 1. Spatial and episodic processing in the PHC. A comparison of Talairach
coordinates from the spatial processing literature (17 studies) and the episodic
memory literature (17 studies). Spatial processing (numbers marked in red): (1)
Epstein et al. (1999), (2) Epstein et al. (2003), (3) Levy et al. (2001), (4) Goh et al.
(2004), (5) Gorno-Tempini and Price (2001), (6) O’Craven and Kanwisher (2000), (7)
Janzen and van Turennout (2004), (8) Mellet et al. (2000), (9) Maguire et al. (1997),
(10) Rosenbaum et al. (2004), (11) Shelton and Gabrieli (2002), (12) Sugiura et al.
(2005), (13) Yi and Chun (2005), (14) Steeves et al. (2004), (15) Goel et al. (2004),
(16) Suzuki et al. (2005), and (17) Burgess et al. (2001). Episodic memory (numbers
marked in yellow): (1) Wagner et al. (1998), (2) Medford et al. (2005), (3) Sommer
et al. (2005), (4) Morcom et al. (2003), (5) Davachi et al. (2003), (6) Kirchhoff et al.
(2000), (7) Casasanto et al. (2002); (8) Brewer et al. (1998), (9) Reber et al. (2002),
(10) Takahashi et al. (2002), (11) Dobbins et al. (2003), (12) Henke et al. (1999), (13)
Yonelinas et al. (2001), (14) Pihlajamaki et al. (2003); Kirwan and Stark (2004), (16)
Tsukiura et al. (2002), and (17) Ranganath et al. (2003). Reproduced with permission
from Aminoff et al. (2007).
Page 2 of 6
Faces and Contextual Associations in the PHC
Bar et al.
associations, it would exhibit differential activation for famous
compared with unfamiliar faces because of the contextual
associations they evoke.
Before we proceed, it might be worth elaborating on what
we mean by ‘‘contextual associations.’’ Our working definition
is that items are contextually associated with each other if they
typically coappear in the environment around us or their
corresponding representations tend to be coactivated. There-
fore, a desk and a chair are contextually associated because
they tend to appear together, but a cupid and a heart-shaped
chocolate box are also contextually associated with each other,
even if they do not typically physically appear next to each
other. Furthermore, the strength of the associations, rather
than their number, is the primary dimension that determines
whether a certain visual stimulus is considered strongly or
weakly contextually associative. For example, a flyswatter is
associated only with a fly. A refrigerator, on the other hand, is
associated with many objects that tend to share its context.
Both a flyswatter and a refrigerator are considered strongly
contextual objects, which is also reflected in the consensus
observed in participants’ responses (Bar and Aminoff 2003).
Objects that we consider weakly contextual objects (e.g.,
a camera or a bottle of water), on the other hand, are associated
with many objects, but only weakly, and most importantly,
these associates do not share the same context. There are
many such strong associations for the famous faces, whereas
they are nonexistent for the unfamiliar faces in our critical
Materials and Methods
The methods described here pertain exclusively to the face study,
which is also the study for which we present new results here. For
detailed descriptions of the material and methods used in the studies of
contextual processing with objects and shapes, see Bar and Aminoff
(2003); Aminoff et al. (2007); and Bar et al. (2007).
Ten healthy participants (5 males, mean age 25 years) with normal
vision participated in the study. All participants gave written informed
consent in accordance with protocols approved by the University
Hospital of Zurich.
Stimuli and Tasks
Participants were presented with grayscale photographs of unfamiliar
neutral and emotional (fearful and happy) faces and neutral famous
faces. The famous faces consisted of contemporary Hollywood
celebrities, taken from the database of Ishai et al. (2002). Phase-
scrambled versions of these faces were used as visual baseline (Ishai
et al. 2005). Each stimulus was presented for 3 s. Each run included 3
alternating epochs of scrambled faces (24 s) and faces (36 s). Four runs
were collected per each participant, and the order of stimulus formats
was randomized. In each block, 12 faces were presented, namely 36
faces per run and a total of 144 faces in the experiment. Stimuli were
generated using Presentation (http://www.neurobs.com, version 9.13)
and were projected with a magnetically shielded LCD video projector
onto a translucent screen. The subject was instructed to view the faces
Data were collected using a 3T Philips Intera whole-body MR scanner.
Functional data were obtained from 39 transverse slices covering the
whole brain with a spatial resolution of 2.3 3 2.3 3 3 mm (acquisition
matrix 96 3 96), using a sensitivity-encoded single-shot gradient-echo
planar sequence. Images were acquired with field of view = 220 mm,
time repetition [TR] = 3000 ms, time echo [TE] = 35 ms, h = 82? and
with a SENSE acceleration factor of 2.0 (Pruessmann et al. 1999). High-
resolution spoiled gradient recalled echo structural images were
obtained with 1 3 1 3 1-mm spatial resolution (acquisition matrix
224 3 224), TE = 2.30 ms, TR = 20 ms, h = 20?. These T1-weighted
images provided detailed anatomical information for the region of
Data were analyzed using SPM5 software (http://www.fil.ion.ucl.ac.uk/
spm/). All volumes were slice time corrected, realigned to the first
volume, corrected for motion artifacts, mean adjusted by proportional
scaling, normalized into standard stereotactic space (template provided
by the Montreal Neurological Institute [MNI]), and smoothed using a 5-
mm full-width-at-half-maximum Gaussian kernel. The time series were
high-pass filtered to eliminate low-frequency components (filter width
128 s) and adjusted for systematic differences across trials. The
statistical analysis was based on a conventional general linear model
(Friston, Holmes, Poline, et al. 1995; Friston, Holmes, Worsley, et al.
1995). To test our hypothesis, famous faces were contrasted with
unfamiliar faces (for the main effect analysis see Ishai et al. 2005).
Montreal Neurological Institute coordinates were converted to the
normalized space of the brain atlas (Talairach and Tournoux 1988).
We report here novel findings showing that famous faces also
activate the PHC. The data from object studies with which
these results overlap have been published previously and are
overviewed in the Introduction.
When contrasted with scrambled faces, face stimuli elicit
significant activation within multiple visual, limbic, and pre-
frontal regions (Fig. 3). To contrast our contextual association
hypothesis with the PPA hypothesis, we reanalyzed the data set
of Ishai et al. (2005) and directly compared famous faces with
unfamiliar faces. Critically, the PHC region (mean Talairach
coordinates: x = –20, y = –36, z = –10) responded significantly
more strongly to famous than unfamiliar faces (P < 0.001) (Fig.
4). All face stimuli were equated for size and other low-level
features, and indeed, given that the faces in the 2 conditions did
not significantly differ in any dimension other than the
information associated with the famous faces, we did not
observe significant activation in any other face-responsive
region. Additionally, in the postscan debriefing, all participants
reported that when they viewed the famous faces, they
spontaneously remembered other pictures of these celebrities
and information they knew about them from the tabloids and
their recent movies. In contrast, viewing unfamiliar faces did
not elicit any associations or recall of prior knowledge about
these faces. In summary, when compared with unfamiliar faces,
for which no prior knowledge exists, viewing famous
celebrities evokes rich contextual associations that resulted
in the PHC activation.
To demonstrate the generalization we are proposing here,
Figure 4 shows a comparison of old and new contrasts
involving different stimuli, tasks, and conditions: the statistical
maps and differential activation evoked by scenes, objects, and
faces. Across all 4 contrasts, it is clear that stimuli with rich
contextual associations activate the PHC significantly, regard-
less of whether these associations are related to places or not.
Overall, this remarkable compatibility between the activations
elicited by various objects and famous faces provides significant
support to our proposal that the PHC mediates contextual
associations in general, rather than spatial associations proper.
Cerebral Cortex Page 3 of 6
To reconcile the various cognitive functions that elicit
activation in the PHC, we have proposed that this region
should be considered as mediating contextual associations in
general, without committing to a specific type of associations
(Bar and Aminoff 2003; Aminoff et al. 2007; Bar et al.
forthcoming). The new findings reported here, that famous
faces activate the PHC, support a critical prediction that was
derived from this proposal and provide complementary
evidence that allows a generalization of this proposal.
Specifically, we found that when faces are highly associative,
they activate areas involved in contextual associations in the
PHC, although faces, when compared with assorted common
objects, evoke activation predominantly in the FFA (Kanwisher
et al. 1997; Gorno-Tempini and Price 2001; Grill-Spector et al.
2004). There have beensome reports showing that famousfaces
activate the PHC (Sergent et al. 1992; Leveroni et al. 2000;
reports did not make a reference to context and associations,
they support our findings and overarching proposal.
Faces that are personally familiar differ from famous faces in
terms of emotional attachment and intimate knowledge about
biographical information. When personally familiar faces are
compared with famous faces, stronger activation is observed in
the fusiform gyrus, posterior superior temporal sulcus, poste-
rior cingulate/precuneus, and
(Gobbini et al. 2004). Activation in these regions, previously
associated with theory of mind (Gallagher and Frith 2003) and
the brain’s ‘‘default’’ network, suggests that viewing personally
familiar faces elicits spontaneous retrieval of social and personal
knowledge associated with close friends and family members.
This is in accordance with our previous observation of a major
overlap between the cortical network mediating contextual
associations and the default network (Bar et al. 2007). Taken
collectively, these findings suggest that the response to faces is
modulated not only by the degree of visual familiarity but
importantly by the concomitant associations involved.
It is of interest that although most of the famous faces used
in our study were also attractive faces, the comparison with the
unfamiliar faces did not reveal enhanced activation in the
orbitofrontal cortex. Our previous studies have shown that
attractive faces evoke stronger activation in the orbitofrontal
cortex (Kranz and Ishai 2006; Ishai 2007). Therefore, our
current findings suggest that beauty was implicit to the
spontaneous retrieval of contextual associations associated
with these famous faces.
We did not observe stronger activation to famous than
unfamiliar faces in other regions of the contextual processing
network, namely the retrosplenial complex and the medial
prefrontal cortex. This lack of activation could be explained in
terms of cognitive demands. Tasks that involve recognition,
generation of mental images, and retrieval from episodic
memory are more likely to evoke activation within these
regions than passive viewing (Ishai et al. 2000; Ishai et al. 2002;
Bar and Aminoff 2003; Yago and Ishai 2006; Aminoff et al. 2007;
Bar et al. 2007; Aminoff et al., forthcoming).
contrasted with scrambled faces, activation is found within a distributed cortical
network that includes visual, limbic, and prefrontal regions. Coronal sections, taken
from a representative subject, illustrate activation within the inferior occipital gyrus
(IOG); fusiform gyrus (FG), superior temporal sulcus (STS); amygdala; inferior frontal
gyrus (IFG); and orbitofrontal cortex (OFC). Coordinates are in the Talairach space.
Adapted from Ishai et al. (2005).
When various face stimuli (e.g., unfamiliar and famous faces) are
Figure 4. PHC activations by places, spatial context, nonspatial context, and famous
faces. Across all contrasts, highly associative stimuli differentially and significantly
activated the PHC, regardless of nature of the stimulus and the type of associations
(Bar and Aminoff 2003; Aminoff et al. 2007).
Page 4 of 6
Faces and Contextual Associations in the PHC
Bar et al.
Finally, our current findings revealed an intriguing hemi-
spheric asymmetry. As can be seen in Figure 4, nonspatial
information seems to elicit stronger activation in the left
hemisphere, whereas spatial information seems to elicit
stronger activation in the right hemisphere. Although face
stimuli evoke stronger activation in the right hemisphere (Ishai
et al. 2005), contrasting famous faces with unfamiliar ones
resulted in a significant cluster in the left PHC. These findings
are consistent with prior studies of visual imagery of faces, in
which stronger activation was found in the left hemisphere
(Ishai et al. 2000; Ishai et al. 2002). Given that imagery and
contextual activation share the property of activating repre-
sentations of information that is not physically present, this
convergence supports our proposal that viewing famous faces
elicits contextual associations, possibly mediated by semantic
knowledge stored in the left hemisphere. Future studies will
determine the extent to which this hemispheric asymmetry
can be generalized.
In summary, using faces, we have extended our previous stud-
ies (Bar and Aminoff 2003; Bar 2004; Aminoff et al. 2007; Bar et al.
2007) and provided additional strong support to our proposal
that the operation of the PHC, including the PPA within it, is
best explained as mediating contextual associations.
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
(NS044319 and NS050615); Dart Scholar Award to M.B.;
National Science Foundation (3200B0-105278); Swiss National
Center for Competence in Research:
Repair grant to A.I.
Neural Plasticity and
We thank S. Fairhall for assistance with data analysis and D. Greve for
help with the analysis tools. Conflict of Interest: None declared.
Address correspondence to email: email@example.com.
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