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Novartis Found Symp. 2006;270:170-86; discussion 186-90, 232-7.

Decoding the temporal evolution of a simple perceptual act.

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Instituto de Fisiología Celular, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, DF, México.


Most perceptual tasks require sequential steps to be carried out. This must be the case, for example, when subjects discriminate the difference in frequency between two mechanical vibrations applied sequentially to their fingertips. This perceptual task can be understood as a chain of neural operations: encoding the two consecutive stimulus frequencies, maintaining the first stimulus in working memory, comparing the second stimulus to the memory trace left by the first stimulus, and communicating the result of the comparison to the motor apparatus. Where and how in the brain are these cognitive operations executed? We addressed this problem by recording single neurons from several cortical areas while trained monkeys executed the vibrotactile discrimination task. We found that primary somatosensory cortex (S1) drives higher cortical areas where past and current sensory information are combined, such that a comparison of the two evolves into a decision. Consistent with this result, direct activation of the S1 can trigger quantifiable percepts in this task. These findings provide a fairly complete panorama of the neural dynamics that underlies the transformation of sensory information into an action and emphasize the importance of studying multiple cortical areas during the same behavioural task.

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