The study led by researchers at MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory undermines the classic belief that separate cortical regions play distinct roles. Instead, as animals in the lab refined what they saw down to a specific understanding relevant to behavior, brain cells in each of six cortical regions operated along a continuum between sensory processing and categorization. To be sure, general patterns were evident for each region, but activity associated with categorization was shared surprisingly widely, said the authors of the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.
“The cortex is not modular,” said Earl Miller, Picower Professor of Neuroscience in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT. “Different parts of the cortex emphasize different things and do different types of processing, but it is more of a matter of emphasis. It’s a blend and a transition from one to the other. This extends up to higher cognition.”
The study not only refines neuroscientists’ understanding of a core capability of cognition, it also could inform psychiatrist’s understanding of disorders in which categorization judgements are atypical, such as schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorders, the authors said.
Scott Brincat, a research scientist in Miller’s Picower lab, and Markus Siegel, principal investigator at the University of Tübingen in Germany, are the study’s co-lead authors. Tübingen postdoc Constantin von Nicolai is a co-author.