Learning increases stimulus salience in anterior inferior temporal cortex of the macaque

J Neurophysiol. 2001 Jul;86(1):290-303. doi: 10.1152/jn.2001.86.1.290.


With experience, an object can become behaviorally relevant and thereby quickly attract our interest when presented in a visual scene. A likely site of these learning effects is anterior inferior temporal (aIT) cortex, where neurons are thought to participate in the filtering of irrelevant information out of complex visual displays. We trained monkeys to saccade consistently to one of two pictures in an array, in return for a reward. The array was constructed by pairing two stimuli, one of which elicited a good response from the cell when presented alone ("good" stimulus) and the other of which elicited a poor response ("poor" stimulus). The activity of aIT cells was recorded while monkeys learned to saccade to either the good or poor stimulus in the array. We found that neuronal responses to the array were greater (before the saccade occurred) when training reinforced a saccade to the good stimulus than when training reinforced a saccade to the poor stimulus. This difference was not present on incorrect trials, i.e., when saccades to the incorrect stimulus were made. Thus the difference in activity was correlated with performance. The response difference grew over the course of the recording session, in parallel with the improvement in performance. The response difference was not preceded by a difference in the baseline activity of the cells, unlike what was found in studies of cued visual search and working memory in aIT cortex. Furthermore, we found similar effects in a version of the task in which any of 10 possible pairs of stimuli, prelearned before the recording session, could appear on a given trial, thereby precluding a working memory strategy. The results suggest that increasing the behavioral significance of a stimulus through training alters the neural representation of that stimulus in aIT cortex. As a result, neurons responding to features of the relevant stimulus may suppress neurons responding to features of irrelevant stimuli.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Action Potentials / physiology
  • Animals
  • Discrimination Learning / physiology*
  • Electrophysiology
  • Macaca mulatta
  • Male
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology
  • Saccades / physiology
  • Temporal Lobe / cytology
  • Temporal Lobe / physiology*