Background: The inferior temporal cortex (IT) of the monkey has long been known to play an essential role in visual object recognition. Damage to this area results in severe deficits in perceptual learning and object recognition, without significantly affecting basic visual capacities. Consistent with these ablation studies is the discovery of IT neurons that respond to complex two-dimensional visual patterns, or objects such as faces or body parts. What is the role of these neurons in object recognition? Is such a complex configurational selectivity specific to biologically meaningful objects, or does it develop as a result of extensive exposure to any objects whose identification relies on subtle shape differences? If so, would IT neurons respond selectively to recently learned views of features of novel objects? The present study addresses this question by using combined psychophysical and electrophysiological experiments, in which monkeys learned to classify and recognize computer-generated three-dimensional objects.
Results: A population of IT neurons was found that responded selectively to views of previously unfamiliar objects. The cells discharged maximally to one view of an object, and their response declined gradually as the object was rotated away from this preferred view. No selective responses were ever encountered for views that the animal systematically failed to recognize. Most neurons also exhibited orientation-dependent responses during view-plane rotations. Some neurons were found to be tuned around two views of the same object, and a very small number of cells responded in a view-invariant manner. For the five different objects that were used extensively during the training of the animals, and for which behavioral performance became view-independent, multiple cells were found that were tuned around different views of the same object. A number of view-selective units showed response invariance for changes in the size of the object or the position of its image within the parafovea.
Conclusion: Our results suggest that IT neurons can develop a complex receptive field organization as a consequence of extensive training in the discrimination and recognition of objects. None of these objects had any prior meaning for the animal, nor did they resemble anything familiar in the monkey's environment. Simple geometric features did not appear to account for the neurons' selective responses. These findings support the idea that a population of neurons--each tuned to a different object aspect, and each showing a certain degree of invariance to image transformations--may, as an ensemble, encode at least some types of complex three-dimensional objects. In such a system, several neurons may be active for any given vantage point, with a single unit acting like a blurred template for a limited neighborhood of a single view.