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The functional architecture of the ventral temporal cortex and its role in categorization

Key Points

  • Understanding information processing in the visual system requires an understanding of the interplay among the system's computational goals and representations, and their physical implementation in the brain.

  • Recent results indicate a consistent topology of functional representations relative to each other and anatomical landmarks in high-level visual cortex.

  • The consistent topology of functional representations reveals that axes of representational spaces are physically implemented as axes in cortical space.

  • Anatomical constraints might determine the topology of functional representations in the brain, which would explain the correspondence between representational and anatomical axes in the ventral temporal cortex (VTC).

  • Superimposition and topology generate predictable spatial convergences and divergences among functional representations, which in turn enable information integration and parallel processing, respectively.

  • Superimposition and topological organization in the VTC generates a series of nested functional representations, the arrangements of which generate a spatial hierarchy of category information.

  • The spatial scale of functional representations may be tied to the level of category abstractness in which more abstract information is represented in larger spatial scales across the VTC.

Abstract

Visual categorization is thought to occur in the human ventral temporal cortex (VTC), but how this categorization is achieved is still largely unknown. In this Review, we consider the computations and representations that are necessary for categorization and examine how the microanatomical and macroanatomical layout of the VTC might optimize them to achieve rapid and flexible visual categorization. We propose that efficient categorization is achieved by organizing representations in a nested spatial hierarchy in the VTC. This spatial hierarchy serves as a neural infrastructure for the representational hierarchy of visual information in the VTC and thereby enables flexible access to category information at several levels of abstraction.

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Figure 1: Computational goals of a visual categorization system.
Figure 2: Properties of the ventral temporal cortex representations.
Figure 3: Three implementational features of the ventral temporal cortex: clustering, topological organization and superimposition.
Figure 4: Linking anatomical features to large-scale functional maps in the ventral temporal cortex.
Figure 5: The spatial structure of nested functional representations in the ventral temporal cortex supports the hierarchical information structure.

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Acknowledgements

The authors thank C. Jacques for creating figure 2b, and N. Davidenko for creating figure 2a. The authors thank D. Van Essen, M. Glasser, J. Caspers, S. Nasr, T. Konkle and Z. M. Saygin for providing access to their data and contributing to figure 4. The authors thank A. Connolly, J. S. Guntupalli, J. V. Haxby, E. Issa and N. Kriegeskorte for permission to use their figures. This work was supported by the National Science Foundation, BCS grant 0920865 and National Eye Institute grant NIH 1 RO1 EY 02231801A1.

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Human Connectome Project

PowerPoint slides

Glossary

Visual categorization and recognition

Determining, from the visual input, what it is that we see. These processes involve multiple levels of abstraction: exemplar ('my car'); subordinate category ('Volkswagen Beetle'); basic category ('car') and superordinate category ('vehicle').

Ventral temporal cortex

(VTC). An anatomical section of the human temporal lobe that includes the fusiform gyrus, parahippocampal gyrus and their bounding sulci.

Agnosia

A condition characterized by a loss of the ability to recognize objects, people or shapes but in which basic visual acuity and memory are preserved.

Eccentricity bias

A preference for particular eccentricities, such as the centre or periphery.

Tolerance

The ability to generalize across a transformation (such as size, position, illumination or view) that affects the appearance of an exemplar.

Separable representations

Representations that can be divided by a linear boundary.

Basic-level

The mid-level (typically entry-level) of the category hierarchy; members have the most shared features and are most distinct from other categories (for example, car versus face).

Superordinate-level

The broadest level of the category hierarchy. It has a high degree of generality; members share fewer attributes than members of basic-level categories (for example, animate versus inanimate).

Subordinate-level

The most specific level of the category hierarchy; members share more features than members of basic-level categories (for example, Honda Civic versus Toyota Corolla).

Category hierarchies

A differentiation of superordinate, basic-level and subordinate categories.

Topological organization

An orderly spatial arrangement of functional representations across the cortex.

Eccentricity

Distance from the centre of gaze. It is measured in units of visual angle.

Inferotemporal cortex

(IT). An anatomical section in the inferior aspect of the temporal lobe in the macaque brain that is thought to be homologous to the ventral temporal cortex in humans.

Fusiform body area

(FBA). A region in the occipital temporal sulcus (OTS) that selectively responds to images of human bodies and body parts. It is also referred to as OTS-limbs.

Lateral occipital complex

(LOC). A constellation of object-selective regions in humans that includes a region (termed LO) in the lateral occipital cortex that overlaps with LO-2, and a region (named posterior fusiform/occipitotemporal sulcus (pFus/OTS)) in the ventral temporal cortex that overlaps with the posterior fusiform gyrus and OTS.

Retinotopy

A representation in which adjacent points on the retina are mapped to adjacent points in the cortex.

Voxel

Volume pixel.

Parahippocampal place area

(PPA). A region that responds selectively to scenes, places and houses over other visual stimuli. Recent studies show that place-selective activations are actually located in the collateral sulcus (CoS) rather than in the parahippocampal gyrus. This area is also referred to as CoS-places.

Fusiform face area

(FFA). A region in the lateral fusiform gyrus that selectively responds to faces compared to other animate or inanimate stimuli. Recent measurements indicate anatomically and functionally distinct divisions of the FFA, which are referred to as posterior fusiform face-selective region (pFus-Faces; also known as FFA-1) and mid-fusiform face-selective region (mFus-faces; also known as FFA-2).

Posterior transverse collateral sulcus

(ptCoS). A sulcus that is transverse to the posterior edge of the lateral branch of the CoS and separates the occipital lobe from the temporal lobes.

Mid-fusiform sulcus

(MFS). A longitudinal sulcus that bisects the fusiform gyrus.

Convergent representations

Superimposition of multiple functional representations on the same cortical location.

Divergent representations

Spatially distinct functional representations in the cortex.

Cytoarchitectonic

The arrangement (for example, columnar), properties (for example, density and cell size) and characteristic layout of neuronal cell bodies in the brain.

Intermediate complexity features

Visual features that contain more than one low-level feature: for example, a shape with an elaborated contour or a coloured shape.

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Grill-Spector, K., Weiner, K. The functional architecture of the ventral temporal cortex and its role in categorization. Nat Rev Neurosci 15, 536–548 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn3747

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