In a nutshell: Activity in the parahippocampal cortex has been more accurately charted, with separate subregions for visual scene identification and assigning context to objects.

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The big picture:

Deep in the primitive central part of the brain lies the parahippocampal cortex — contested territory that plays a role either in recognising visual scenes, or in assigning context to objects, depending on whose research you follow.

Now, a brain imaging study by Oliver Baumann and CIBF investigator Jason Mattingley of The University of Queensland, has found that the parahippocampal cortex does both, with each function having its own subregion.

High-resolution fMRI scans found more activity in the rear portion of the parahippocampal cortex when a person identifies a visual scene — for example, recognising that an image represents a landscape or a classroom, rather than a person’s face or a cup.

But people assigning context to an object — for example, recognising that a boat and a lake belong together, but a boat and a kitchen do not — showed activity in the front left portion of the parahippocampal cortex.

The results give a clearer picture of how the brain analyses and stores information about objects and scenes to make sense of incoming visual information.

Next steps:
The researchers will investigate whether different subregions of the parahippocampal cortex deal with other types of contextual information, such as the emotional significance of an object or scene.

Baumann, O., and Mattingley, J. B. (2016). Functional Organization of the Parahippocampal Cortex: Dissociable Roles for Context Representations and the Perception of Visual Scenes. The Journal of Neuroscience, 36(8), 2536-2542

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