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J Neurophysiol. 2002 Apr;87(4):1867-88.

Physiological correlates of perceptual learning in monkey V1 and V2.

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Division of Neuroscience and Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, Texas 77030, USA.


Performance in visual discrimination tasks improves with practice. Although the psychophysical parameters of these improvements have suggested the involvement of early areas in visual cortex, there has been little direct study of the physiological correlates of such perceptual learning at the level of individual neurons. To examine how neuronal response properties in the early visual system may change with practice, we trained monkeys for more than 6 mo in an orientation discrimination task in which behaviorally relevant stimuli were restricted to a particular retinal location and oriented around a specific orientation. During training the monkeys' discrimination thresholds gradually improved to much better than those of naive monkeys or humans. Although this improvement was specific to the trained orientation, it showed little retinotopic specificity. The receptive field properties of single neurons from regions representing the trained location and a location in the opposite visual hemifield were measured in V1 and V2. In most respects the receptive field properties in the representations of the trained and untrained regions were indistinguishable. However, in the regions of V1 and V2 representing the trained location, there were slightly fewer neurons whose optimal orientation was near the trained orientation. This resulted in a small but significant decrease in the V1 population response to the trained orientation at the trained location. Consequently, the observed neuronal populations did not exhibit any orientation-specific biases sufficient to explain the orientation specificity of the behavioral improvement. Pooling models suggest that the behavioral improvement was accomplished with a task-dependent and orientation-selective pooling of unaltered signals from early visual neurons. These data suggest that, even for training with stimuli suited to the selectivities found in early areas of visual cortex, behavioral improvements can occur in the absence of pronounced changes in the physiology of those areas.

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