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Curr Biol. 2012 May 8;22(9):781-6. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2012.02.067. Epub 2012 Apr 12.

Long-range, pattern-dependent contextual effects in early human visual cortex.

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Department of Psychology, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195, USA.


The standard view of neurons in early visual cortex is that they behave like localized feature detectors. Here we demonstrate that processing in early visual areas goes beyond feature detection by showing that neural responses are greater when a feature deviates from its context compared to when it does not deviate from its context. Using psychophysics, fMRI, and electroencephalography methodologies, we measured neural responses to an oriented Gabor ("target") embedded in various visual patterns as defined by the relative orientation of flanking stimuli. We first show using psychophysical contrast adaptation and fMRI that a target that differs from its context results in more neural activity compared to a target that is contained within an alternating sequence, suggesting that neurons in early visual cortex are sensitive to large-scale orientation patterns. Next, we use event-related potentials to show that orientation deviations affect the earliest sensory components of the target response. Finally, we use forced-choice classification of "noise" stimuli to show that we are more likely to "see" orientations that deviate from the context. Our results suggest that early visual cortex is sensitive to global patterns in images in a way that is markedly different from the predictions of standard models of cortical visual processing.

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