A network linking scene perception and spatial memory

The neural systems supporting scene-perception and spatial-memory systems of the human brain are well-described. But how do these neural systems interact? Here, using fine-grained individual-subject fMRI, we report three cortical areas of the human brain, each lying immediately anterior to a region of the scene perception network in posterior cerebral cortex, that selectively activate when recalling familiar real-world locations.

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Fig:  Distinct topography of place-memory and scene-perception activity in posterior cerebral cortex.

In all participants, three place-memory areas were observed, each located significantly anterior to one region of the scene-perception network. One example participant in Experiment 1 is shown (See Supplementary and Supplementary Video for thresholded and unthresholded activation maps for all participants (n = 14)). The participant’s scene perception ROIs are outlined in white, and place-memory activity is shown in warm colors. The scene-perception network (parahippocampal place area [PPA], occipital place area [OPA], and medial place area [MPA]) was localized by comparing the BOLD response when participants viewed images of scenes versus with faces (outlined in white, thresholded at vertex-wise p < 0.001). Place-memory areas on each surface were localized in separate fMRI runs by comparing the BOLD response when participants recalled personally familiar places versus people (warm colors, thresholded at vertex-wise p < 0.001). Polar plots: for each cortical surface, the center of mass of place-memory activation was significantly anterior to the center of mass of scene-perception activation in all participants (all ts > 5, p < 0.001). In contrast, face memory activation was spatially co-localized with the face-selective fusiform face area (FFA) on the ventral surface, and no anterior shift was observed (cool colors, t9 = 0.1211, p = 0.906). Statistical analyses revealed no difference between the hemispheres, so, for clarity, only right hemisphere is shown. Inset: while the activation during place memory was systematically anterior to activation during scene perception, the spatial overlap between perception and memory activation varied across the cortical surfaces. Note that the axes (posterior-anterior) of each polar plot are aligned to its associated cortical surface. The data in the polar plot reflects distance in millimeters.

Despite their close proximity to the scene-perception areas, network analyses show that these regions constitute a distinct functional network that interfaces with spatial memory systems during naturalistic scene understanding. These “place-memory areas” offer a new framework for understanding how the brain implements memory-guided visual behaviors, including navigation.

Steel, A., Billings, M.M., Silson, E.H. et al. A network linking scene perception and spatial memory systems in posterior cerebral cortex.Nat Commun 12, 2632 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-021-22848-z

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