Differen0ating the contributions of domain-specific regions within the medial temporal lobe and extrastriate cortex to perception

Lead Research Organisation: Cardiff University
Department Name: Sch of Psychology


Perception of, and memory for, faces, scenes and objects is necessary for successful social interaction and navigation in our environment. Understanding how we tell apart and remember these different categories of stimuli, therefore, is a key question in cognitive and social neuroscience. This project contributes to this question by using functional neuroimaging to identify brain areas that are selective in their response to particular categories of visual stimuli. The proposed experiments then ask how these different regions support our ability to distinguish items both across and within these visual categories. For example, three brain regions in humans - the occipital face area, fusiform face area and perirhinal cortex - show particularly strong responses to faces, compared to scenes and objects. Damage or disruption to these brain regions results in difficulties in telling apart different faces, but less so scenes and objects. Processing of faces, therefore, is clearly dependent upon a number of special brain areas distributed throughout the human brain. As yet, however, we know little about how these three face regions contribute to perceiving and identifying faces, including understanding what type of facial information is stored in each region, and whether these representations are unique to faces across these regions. We also do not know whether these areas are recruited separately (or together) during tasks in which one is required to tell apart faces, and whether this differs depending upon factors such as visual similarity. Extending these questions beyond face stimuli, there are outstanding issues regarding whether the information we learn from our experiments on faces can be generalised to domain-specific regions specialised for processing other visual categories, such as scenes and objects. This is an important, and novel, part of our proposal, as evidence of generalisation would highlight fundamental neural principles about how the human brain acquires, stores and uses information about visual categories, as opposed to just face stimuli. To address these important questions, the proposed project aims to use functional neuroimaging to ask which brain areas are sensitive to distinct categories (e.g., faces, scenes and objects) and how these regions help support perception for items that comprise these categories. The planned experiments will identify similarities and differences in how these regions store different categories of stimuli (e.g., by visual features comprising these items or as whole items) and help identify the contribution made by these brain areas to perception. The programme of research is novel in that it aims to integrate methods from two psychological disciplines (perception and memory) that are typically researched independently, including investigating how regions thought to be uniquely specialised for memory processing may also contribute to perception. It also aims to look for commonalities (and differences) across visual categories and across brain areas; this approach is rare in cognitive neuroscience research, but ensures, here, that our planned experiments will result in significant advances in our understanding of how the brain represents and remembers categories of stimuli key to successful interactions with people, and the environment.

Technical Summary

A major goal of cognitive neuroscience is to understand how the human brain stores and retrieves information critical to social interaction and navigation in our environment. A significant body of work has used functional neuroimaging techniques to identify areas in extrastriate cortex that show evidence of domain-specificity (e.g., greater activation for a particular category of stimuli, such as faces, compared to another category, say scenes). Notably, however, little attention has been drawn to the fact that other areas in the brain, in particular medial temporal lobe (MTL) structures, also show evidence of domain-specificity. A key psychological division between these brain areas is thought to be between perception (extrastriate) and memory (MTL). Notably, however, regions within the MTL do not just show domain-specific properties on memory tasks, but also on simple discrimination tasks (same/different judgements) more akin to those used to measure perception. There is an urgent need, therefore, for a body of work aimed at bridging the gap between these separate strands of cognitive neuroscience research, with a particular focus on identifying what types of perceptual representations are stored within these different brain regions. This project addresses this issue by drawing together experts in perception, learning and memory to develop an overarching theoretical model of how the brain represents particular types of visual stimuli. Functional neuroimaging will be used to ask (a) how do MTL and extrastriate areas differ in their degree of domain-selectivity across categories, and across exemplars within these categories and (b) is 'feature ambiguity' or visual similarity a key factor influencing recruitment of MTL, but not extrastriate, areas in perception (across categories). This programme will resolve current controversies in perception and memory research, and establish a new area of research likely to result in novel theoretical findings.

Planned Impact

Who will benefit from this research? The research will benefit academics, clinicians, the public, media, industry, charity/public sector organisations and policy bodies. How will they benefit from this research? The findings will interest academic researchers in electrophysiology, behavioural neuroscience, cognitive neuroscience, experimental psychology and social psychology as it is likely to have an impact on our understanding of the neurobiological bases of perception and memory. This knowledge contributes to improving quality of life by helping doctors and clinical psychologists working with individuals who suffer from disorders of memory/perception and charities involved with these clinical conditions (e.g., Alzheimer's Research Society, Stroke Association, Headway etc.). A detailed understanding of how the human brain supports perception and memory is also a necessary prerequisite for the development of new drugs and cognitive rehabilitation strategies (long-term health goals), and as well as ensuring up-to-date knowledge for decision-making by charities and policy bodies, research councils and government committees. The research topic is of significant interest to the nation and is frequently covered by the media; the findings, therefore, can be used to inform the public about science research and techniques, as well as helping develop a broader understanding of the significant social and financial impact of related clinical disorders. UK research and development could also benefit if we develop novel imaging methods of broader use to academic and industrial organisations. What will be done to ensure that they have the opportunity to benefit from this research? We will disseminate findings to the academic community by publishing research in leading academic journals and presenting at conferences and institutions in the UK and abroad. The research training given to the postdoctoral scientists will continue the applicants' contributions to the UK economy; together we have supervised over 30 young scientists and doctors who are now working in the UK and internationally in research (16), medicine (4), finance (2), industry (2), clinical or counselling psychology (4) and charity (2). The research also has the potential for broader collaborations, based on the applicants' prior collaborations, that will help translate the research across disciplines, both locally (e.g., Aggleton, Chambers, Dwyer, Honey, Sumner, Vann, Wilding (Cardiff) and Boehm, Intriligator, Leek, Rafal, Raymond, Shapiro, Tipper (Bangor)) and internationally (e.g., Barense, Toronto, Murray, NIMH, Epstein, UPenn). To help inform the nation about our research, we will undertake public engagement activities via established mechanisms already in place at Bangor and Cardiff (e.g., visits from local schools, exhibits at science museums, public science workshops, science fun days, lab events and 'Knowledge Transfer' Events (http://www.bangor.ac.uk/psychology/ktday09)). Where there is interest, we will involve the media in reporting our, and related, research (e.g., we have previously contributed to live debates on Radio 4, and also had our research reported by Reuters, Daily Express, Daily Mirror, Daily Telegraph, New Scientist). The research findings will be made accessible to clinicians and industry by presenting at conferences on dementia and stroke and relevant carer's meetings, as well at pharmaceutical companies. Graham has significant experience in both of these domains, and can broaden her contribution to policy-making via her membership of the NeuroDem Cymru Steering Group and MRC Neuroscience and Mental Health Board (see Track Record). To help us maximise opportunities for the exploitation of research findings, contributing to the UK economy, the applicants have access to departments that provide support for research and innovation (Cardiff: Research and Commercial Development; Bangor: Research and Innovation Office).


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Description The award aimed to investigate how areas and networks in the brain responded to different forms of visual stimuli based on the idea from evolutionary accounts of human memory that there are distinct networks in the brain for different forms of information. We ran a series of brain imaging experiments to ask how distinct networks and regions responded to visual scenes, objects and faces (social stimuli). We also tested how inter-individual differences in the structure and function of these networks was linked to performance on tests for different visual stimuli. The work demonstrated three distinct networks involved in visual scenes, object and semantic knowledge about the world and social stimuli, such as processing of faces. The work also allowed us to develop new tests tapping these networks, which we have subsequently used in studies of healthy ageing, as well as the development of a digital app for testing in dementia in low-to-middle-income-countries. The work in this BBSRC grant was instrumental in developing these cognitive assessments, and understanding how they might link to different networks involved in poorer later life aging.
Exploitation Route The work in the BBSRC grant has lead to work in a range of labs across the world. Previously, there was little interest in bridging perceptual and mnemonic theories of memory, but this research demonstrated (a) distinct networks involved in memory for different stimuli but also (b) that these same networks supported memory and perception. The field has now moved away from the ideas of distinct areas supporting memory versus perception, to a focus on representational accounts, and the work in this grant was one of the major drivers of that theoretical change. The work in our award, which has impacts on understanding ageing and inter-individual differences, has been taken forward by a number of researchers to understand the early cognitive changes associated with dementia. We have used our tasks to look at genetic influences on spatial navigation and visual scene discrimination as an early marker of dementia, and other researchers are also now using similar tasks to study these disorders. We have also used our tasks to develop a novel digital app for dementia diagnosis, working with low-to-middle-income countries. Our work on inter-individual differences has developed a new field looking at the structural brain networks underpinning inter-individual variation in cognition, and lead to a number of further grant funding applications.
Sectors Healthcare

Description The findings have been used to inform development of tasks for use in studies of aging. This has involved collaboration with software developers to generate novel digital applications for dementia diagnosis.
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Healthcare
Impact Types Societal,Economic

Description ESRC DTC Wales Studentship Scheme
Amount £45,000 (GBP)
Funding ID ESR-LS9_310901 
Organisation Economic and Social Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2013 
End 09/2016
Description Project Grant
Amount £1,400,000 (GBP)
Funding ID MR/N01233X/1 
Organisation Medical Research Council (MRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2017 
End 08/2021
Description Summer Studentship Scheme
Amount £1,800 (GBP)
Organisation Experimental Psychology Society (EPS) 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 06/2012 
End 07/2012
Description Wellcome Trust Institutional Strategic Support Fund
Amount £50,000 (GBP)
Organisation Cardiff University 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 02/2018 
End 02/2019
Description Wellcome Trust Strategic Award
Amount £5,900,000 (GBP)
Organisation Wellcome Trust 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2015 
End 09/2020
Description Wolfson Foundation
Amount £1,000,000 (GBP)
Organisation The Wolfson Foundation 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2015 
End 06/2015
Description Cardiff Brain Games & Primary Assemblies 2015 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact All day public engagement activity aimed at KS2 school-children and their parents, held in the Cardiff Museum. It involves presentations, workshops and demonstrations.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014,2015,2016,2017
URL http://sites.cardiff.ac.uk/cubric/3200-visitors-to-the-cardiff-university-brain-games/
Description Cardiff Brain Games and School Assemblies 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Activities and talks organised at the Cardiff Museum throughout the day, with free attendance to children and parents, as well as other members of the public

Primary School Assemblies on the Brain

Increased interest in our primary school assemblies
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012,2013,2014
URL http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/news/articles/brain-games-event-success-10556.html