Wednesday, May 29, 2013
10:00 am

Ph.D. Thesis Seminar

Studying conscious and unconscious vision with fMRI: the BOLD promise
Julien Dubois, Graduate Student, Compuation and Neural Systems, California Institute of Technology

Waking up from a dreamless sleep, I open my eyes, recognize my wife's face and am filled with joy. In this thesis, I used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to gain insights into the mechanisms involved in this seemingly simple daily occurrence, which poses at least three great challenges to neuroscience: how does conscious experience arise from the activity of the brain? How does the brain process visual input to the point of recognizing individual faces? How does the brain store semantic knowledge about people that we know? To start tackling the first question, I studied the neural correlates of unconscious processing of invisible faces. I was unable to image significant activations related to the processing of completely invisible faces, despite existing reports in the literature. I thus moved on to the next question and studied how recognition of a familiar person was achieved in the brain; I focused on finding invariant representations of person identity – representations that would be activated any time we think of a familiar person, read their name, see their picture, hear them talk, etc. There again, I could not find significant evidence for such representations with fMRI, even in regions where they had previously been found with single unit recordings in human patients (the Jennifer Aniston neurons). Faced with these null outcomes, the scope of my investigations eventually turned back towards the technique that I had been using, fMRI, and the recently praised analytical tools that I had been trusting, Multivariate Pattern Analysis. After a mostly disappointing attempt at replicating a strong single unit finding of a categorical response to animals in the right human amygdala with fMRI, I put fMRI decoding to an ultimate test with a unique dataset acquired in the macaque monkey. There I showed a dissociation between the ability of fMRI to pick up face viewpoint information and its inability to pick up face identity information, which I traced back mostly to the poor clustering of identity selective units. Though fMRI decoding is a powerful new analytical tool, it does not rid fMRI of its inherent limitations as a hemodynamics-based measure.

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