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A new neural framework for visuospatial processing

Key Points

  • Originally, the dorsal visual processing stream was proposed as a 'Where' pathway, supporting spatial processing, but later accounts proposed that it is a 'How' pathway subserving primarily non-conscious visually-guided action.

  • We resolve this debate by showing that at least three pathways emerge from the dorsal stream, supporting three different forms of spatial processing.

  • The parieto–prefrontal pathway connects the posterior parietal with the prefrontal cortex and supports eye movements and spatial working memory.

  • The parieto–premotor pathway connects the posterior parietal with the premotor cortices and supports visually guided action.

  • The parieto–medial temporal pathway is the most complex projection from the posterior parietal cortex. It is a multisynaptic projection emerging from the caudal portion of the inferior parietal lobule and terminating in the parahippocampal cortex and hippocampus, supporting navigation.

  • The intermediate areas along the parieto–medial temporal pathway — the posterior cingulate and retrosplenial cortices — seem to aid in the coordination of allocentric and egocentric spatial representations.

Abstract

The division of cortical visual processing into distinct dorsal and ventral streams is a key framework that has guided visual neuroscience. The characterization of the ventral stream as a 'What' pathway is relatively uncontroversial, but the nature of dorsal stream processing is less clear. Originally proposed as mediating spatial perception ('Where'), more recent accounts suggest it primarily serves non-conscious visually guided action ('How'). Here, we identify three pathways emerging from the dorsal stream that consist of projections to the prefrontal and premotor cortices, and a major projection to the medial temporal lobe that courses both directly and indirectly through the posterior cingulate and retrosplenial cortices. These three pathways support both conscious and non-conscious visuospatial processing, including spatial working memory, visually guided action and navigation, respectively.

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Figure 1: Frameworks of visuospatial processing.
Figure 2: Anatomy of the three pathways.
Figure 3: Parieto–medial temporal pathway in humans.
Figure 4: Functional evidence from PCC and RSC.
Figure 5: Functional evidence from retrosplenial complex and medial temporal lobe.

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Acknowledgements

We wish to thank L. Ungerleider, M. Goodale, A. Martin, D. Leopold, M. Behrmann and D. Tsao for their extremely helpful comments.This research was supported by the Intramural Program of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

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Glossary

Retinotopic

An organization or map in visual cortex that reflects the spatial organization of visual stimuli as they appear on the retina.

Egocentric

An umbrella term for maps and/or patterns of modulation that can be defined in relation to some point on the observer (for example, head- or eye-centred maps).

Optic flow

The apparent motion of the environment caused by relative motion between the observer and the visual surround. During navigation, it can be a source of information about the observer's movement.

Neglect

A deficit resulting from cortical lesions that causes the observer to ignore part of visual space. This deficit can be egocentric, as in hemispatial neglect (in which one half of the visual field is ignored) or allocentric (for example, when the left side of all objects is ignored).

Allocentric

An umbrella term for maps and/or patterns of modulation that are defined in relation to an object exterior to the observer.

Somatotopic map

A map (or a pattern of neural modulation) based on distance from some body part. For example, a cell might increase its firing with decreasing distance of a stimulus from the face or hand

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Kravitz, D., Saleem, K., Baker, C. et al. A new neural framework for visuospatial processing. Nat Rev Neurosci 12, 217–230 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn3008

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