Categorical, yet graded--single-image activation profiles of human category-selective cortical regions

J Neurosci. 2012 Jun 20;32(25):8649-62. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2334-11.2012.


Human inferior temporal cortex contains category-selective visual regions, including the fusiform face area (FFA) and the parahippocampal place area (PPA). These regions are defined by their greater category-average activation to the preferred category (faces and places, respectively) relative to nonpreferred categories. The approach of investigating category-average activation has left unclear to what extent category selectivity holds for individual object images. Here we investigate single-image activation profiles to address (1) whether each image from the preferred category elicits greater activation than any image outside the preferred category (categorical ranking), (2) whether there are activation differences within and outside the preferred category (gradedness), and (3) whether the activation profile falls off continuously across the category boundary or exhibits a discontinuity at the boundary (category step). We used functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure the activation elicited in the FFA and PPA by each of 96 object images from a wide range of categories, including faces and places, but also humans and animals, and natural and manmade objects. Results suggest that responses in FFA and PPA exhibit almost perfect categorical ranking, are graded within and outside the preferred category, and exhibit a category step. The gradedness within the preferred category was more pronounced in FFA; the category step was more pronounced in PPA. These findings support the idea that these regions have category-specific functions, but are also consistent with a distributed object representation emphasizing categories while still distinguishing individual images.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Area Under Curve
  • Brain Mapping
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology*
  • Female
  • Fixation, Ocular
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Monte Carlo Method
  • Oxygen / blood
  • Photic Stimulation
  • ROC Curve
  • Temporal Lobe / physiology
  • Visual Cortex / physiology


  • Oxygen