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.
Organising 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," said Doctor David Freedman. "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 Freedman conducted the first direct comparison of prefrontal cortex and parietal cortex during categorisation tasks. Monkeys were taught a simple game in which they classified dots moving in different directions into one of two 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.
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.
MEDICA.de; Source: University of Chicago