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J Neurosci. 2012 Nov 21;32(47):16747-53a. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.6112-11.2012.

Perceptual learning selectively refines orientation representations in early visual cortex.

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Psychology Department and Vanderbilt Vision Research Center, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee 37240, USA.


Although practice has long been known to improve perceptual performance, the neural basis of this improvement in humans remains unclear. Using fMRI in conjunction with a novel signal detection-based analysis, we show that extensive practice selectively enhances the neural representation of trained orientations in the human visual cortex. Twelve observers practiced discriminating small changes in the orientation of a laterally presented grating over 20 or more daily 1 h training sessions. Training on average led to a twofold improvement in discrimination sensitivity, specific to the trained orientation and the trained location, with minimal improvement found for untrained orthogonal orientations or for orientations presented in the untrained hemifield. We measured the strength of orientation-selective responses in individual voxels in early visual areas (V1-V4) using signal detection measures, both before and after training. Although the overall amplitude of the BOLD response was no greater after training, practice nonetheless specifically enhanced the neural representation of the trained orientation at the trained location. This training-specific enhancement of orientation-selective responses was observed in the primary visual cortex (V1) as well as higher extrastriate visual areas V2-V4, and moreover, reliably predicted individual differences in the behavioral effects of perceptual learning. These results demonstrate that extensive training can lead to targeted functional reorganization of the human visual cortex, refining the cortical representation of behaviorally relevant information.

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