Useful information in the visual environment is often contained in specific conjunctions of visual features (e.g., color and shape). The ability to quickly and accurately process such conjunctions can be learned. However, the neural mechanisms responsible for such learning remain largely unknown. It has been suggested that some forms of visual learning might involve the dopaminergic neuromodulatory system (Roelfsema et al., 2010; Seitz and Watanabe, 2005), but this hypothesis has not yet been directly tested. Here we test the hypothesis that learning visual feature conjunctions involves the dopaminergic system, using functional neuroimaging, genetic assays, and behavioral testing techniques. We use a correlative approach to evaluate potential associations between individual differences in visual feature conjunction learning rate and individual differences in dopaminergic function as indexed by neuroimaging and genetic markers. We find a significant correlation between activity in the caudate nucleus (a component of the dopaminergic system connected to visual areas of the brain) and visual feature conjunction learning rate. Specifically, individuals who showed a larger difference in activity between positive and negative feedback on an unrelated cognitive task, indicative of a more reactive dopaminergic system, learned visual feature conjunctions more quickly than those who showed a smaller activity difference. This finding supports the hypothesis that the dopaminergic system is involved in visual learning, and suggests that visual feature conjunction learning could be closely related to associative learning. However, no significant, reliable correlations were found between feature conjunction learning and genotype or dopaminergic activity in any other regions of interest.
Keywords: Caudate nucleus; Dopamine; Genotyping; Learning; Vision; fMRI.
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