Switch Hitting: Region of the Brain Plays Dual Role in Sorting Visual Information

Watch a video abstract with David Freedman and Chris Rishel on their recent paper in Neuron

Primates, including humans, have a remarkable ability to quickly categorize visual stimuli into meaningful categories. Think of sorting fruits from vegetables, or even better for this time of year, a baseball umpire quickly deciding whether a pitch is a ball or a strike.

David Freedman and Chris Rishel, neurobiologists from the University of Chicago, are researching which part of the brain does this visual sorting. In a study recently published in Neuron, they found that one region that was already busy interpreting spatial information steps up to the plate for visual categorization too. John Easton has the story in our Newsroom:

“We found that multiple functions can be mapped onto a particular region of the brain and even onto individual brain cells in that region,” said study author David Freedman, PhD, assistant professor of neurobiology at the University of Chicago. “These functions overlap. This particular brain area, even its individual neurons, can independently encode both spatial and cognitive signals.”

Freedman studies the effects of learning on the brain and how information is stored in short-term memory, with a focus on the areas that process visual stimuli. To examine this phenomenon, he has taught monkeys to play a simple video game in which they learn to assign moving visual patterns into categories.

“The task is a bit like a baseball umpire calling balls and strikes,” he said, “since the monkeys have to sort the various motion patterns into two groups, or categories.”

Science Life covered Freedman’s work last year when Rob Mitchum spoke to him about his research on the parietal cortex.

Rishel, C., Huang, G., & Freedman, D. (2013). Independent Category and Spatial Encoding in Parietal Cortex Neuron, 77 (5), 969-979 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2013.01.007

About Matt Wood (531 Articles)
Matt Wood is a senior science writer and manager of communications at the University of Chicago Medicine & Biological Sciences Division.
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