Research Article: Perceptual “Read-Out” of Conjoined Direction and Disparity Maps in Extrastriate Area MT

Date Published: March 16, 2004

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Gregory C DeAngelis, William T Newsome

Abstract: Cortical neurons are frequently tuned to several stimulus dimensions, and many cortical areas contain intercalated maps of multiple variables. Relatively little is known about how information is “read out” of these multidimensional maps. For example, how does an organism extract information relevant to the task at hand from neurons that are also tuned to other, irrelevant stimulus dimensions? We addressed this question by employing microstimulation techniques to examine the contribution of disparity-tuned neurons in the middle temporal (MT) visual area to performance on a direction discrimination task. Most MT neurons are tuned to both binocular disparity and the direction of stimulus motion, and MT contains topographic maps of both parameters. We assessed the effect of microstimulation on direction judgments after first characterizing the disparity tuning of each stimulation site. Although the disparity of the stimulus was irrelevant to the required task, we found that microstimulation effects were strongly modulated by the disparity tuning of the stimulated neurons. For two of three monkeys, microstimulation of nondisparity-selective sites produced large biases in direction judgments, whereas stimulation of disparity-selective sites had little or no effect. The binocular disparity was optimized for each stimulation site, and our result could not be explained by variations in direction tuning, response strength, or any other tuning property that we examined. When microstimulation of a disparity-tuned site did affect direction judgments, the effects tended to be stronger at the preferred disparity of a stimulation site than at the nonpreferred disparity, indicating that monkeys can selectively monitor direction columns that are best tuned to an appropriate conjunction of parameters. We conclude that the contribution of neurons to behavior can depend strongly upon tuning to stimulus dimensions that appear to be irrelevant to the current task, and we suggest that these findings are best explained in terms of the strategy used by animals to perform the task.

Partial Text: Determining how information is “read out” of sensory maps in the cerebral cortex is of fundamental importance for understanding how neural activity gives rise to cognitive processes such as perception, planning for action, and working memory. A substantial portion of our knowledge about sensory read-out comes from studies of the middle temporal (MT) visual area, an extrastriate area known to play important roles in processing visual motion information (for reviews, see Maunsell and Newsome 1987; Albright 1993; Andersen 1997). The vast majority of MT neurons are directionally selective (Zeki 1974), and they are arranged in an orderly system of direction columns that run perpendicular to the cortical surface (Albright et al. 1984; Malonek et al. 1994). In addition, most MT neurons are also selective for binocular disparity (Maunsell and Van Essen 1983; DeAngelis and Uka 2003), and these neurons are organized in a topographic map of disparity preference. Regions of strong disparity selectivity are intercalated among patches of MT neurons with weak disparity tuning, and these strongly tuned regions contain a set of disparity columns that are interwoven with the direction columns (DeAngelis and Newsome 1999).

Microstimulation experiments were performed at 102 recording sites in area MT of three rhesus monkeys (38 sites in monkey S, 36 sites in monkey T, and 28 sites in monkey R) during the performance of the direction discrimination task illustrated in Figure 1 (see Materials and Methods for details). The results are presented in three sections. First, we examine how the effects of microstimulation depend on the strength of disparity tuning at the stimulation site. Second, we present control analyses to exclude trivial explanations for the dependence of microstimulation effects on disparity-tuning strength. Third, for sites where the multiunit (MU) activity exhibited moderate to strong disparity selectivity, we examine whether the effect of microstimulation on direction judgments depends on the disparity at which the visual stimulus is presented.

Using microstimulation to probe the link between neuronal activity and behavior, we have tested whether the contribution of MT neurons to direction discrimination depends on their disparity selectivity. This work addresses the general question of how neurons that are tuned to multiple stimulus dimensions contribute to behavior in situations where one or more of these stimulus dimensions are task-irrelevant. Relatively little is currently known about how the responses of sensory neurons are pooled by decision mechanisms (see Shadlen et al. 1996) and how the demands of a particular task alter the pooling strategies that are used. The present study provides new insights into these issues. Our first main finding is that the strength of tuning for binocular disparity (an irrelevant variable in the direction discrimination task) accounts for a substantial proportion of variance in the strength of microstimulation effects (48% of variance for monkey S, 27% for monkey T). Two of our three monkeys relied mainly on nondisparity-selective sites for performing the direction discrimination task, even though the stimulus was tailored to the disparity preference of all sites. Our second main finding is that the efficacy of microstimulation is reduced when the stimulus disparity is adjusted to be suboptimal for neurons at the stimulation site. Thus, to the limited extent that our monkeys made use of signals from disparity-selective neurons, they did tend to monitor more closely neurons with tuning properties that were matched to the stimulus. This latter finding can be viewed as a generalization to three dimensions of the previous result that microstimulation effects were reduced by moving the visual stimulus out of the RF of the stimulated neurons (Salzman et al. 1992).



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