Experience-based cortical plasticity in object category representation
Marieke van der Linden investigated the neural mechanisms underlying category formation in the human brain. The research in her thesis provides novel insights in how the brain learns, stores, and uses category knowledge, enabling humans to become skilled in categorization. The studies reveal the neural mechanisms through which perceptual as well as conceptual category knowledge is created and shaped by experience. The results clearly show that neuronal sensitivity to object features is affected by categorization training. These findings fill in a missing link between electrophysiological recordings from monkey cortex demonstrating learning-induced sharpening of neuronal selectivity and brain imaging data showing category-specific representations in the human brain. Moreover, she showed that it is specifically the features of an object that are relevant for its categorization that induce selectivity in neuronal populations. Category-learning requires collaboration between many different brain areas. Together these can be seen as the neural correlates of the key points of categorization: discrimination and generalization. The occipitotemporal cortex represents those characteristic features of objects that define its category. The narrowly shape-tuned properties of this area enable fine-grained discrimination of perceptually similar objects. In addition, the superior temporal sulcus forms associations between members or properties (i.e. sound and shape) of a category. This allows the generalization of perceptually different but conceptually similar objects. Last but not least is the prefrontal cortex which is involved in coding behaviourally-relevant category information and thus enables the explicit retrieval of category membership.