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Prog Brain Res. 2006;155:3-21.

Top-down facilitation of visual object recognition: object-based and context-based contributions.

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  • 1MGH Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, Harvard Medical School, 149 Thirteenth Street, Charlestown, MA 02129, USA.


The neural mechanisms subserving visual recognition are traditionally described in terms of bottom-up analysis, whereby increasingly complex aspects of the visual input are processed along a hierarchical progression of cortical regions. However, the importance of top-down facilitation in successful recognition has been emphasized in recent models and research findings. Here we consider evidence for top-down facilitation of recognition that is triggered by early information about an object, as well as by contextual associations between an object and other objects with which it typically appears. The object-based mechanism is proposed to trigger top-down facilitation of visual recognition rapidly, using a partially analyzed version of the input image (i.e., a blurred image) that is projected from early visual areas directly to the prefrontal cortex (PFC). This coarse representation activates in the PFC information that is back-projected as "initial guesses" to the temporal cortex where it presensitizes the most likely interpretations of the input object. In addition to this object-based facilitation, a context-based mechanism is proposed to trigger top-down facilitation through contextual associations between objects in scenes. These contextual associations activate predictive information about which objects are likely to appear together, and can influence the "initial guesses" about an object's identity. We have shown that contextual associations are analyzed by a network that includes the parahippocampal cortex and the retrosplenial complex. The integrated proposal described here is that object- and context-based top-down influences operate together, promoting efficient recognition by framing early information about an object within the constraints provided by a lifetime of experience with contextual associations.

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