Processing objects at different levels of specificity.


How objects are represented and processed in the brain is a central topic in cognitive neuroscience. Previous studies have shown that knowledge of objects is represented in a feature-based distributed neural system primarily involving occipital and temporal cortical regions. Research with nonhuman primates suggest that these features are structured in a hierarchical system with posterior neurons in the inferior temporal cortex representing simple features and anterior neurons in the perirhinal cortex representing complex conjunctions of features (Bussey & Saksida, 2002; Murray & Bussey, 1999). On this account, the perirhinal cortex plays a crucial role in object identification by integrating information from different sensory systems into more complex polymodal feature conjunctions. We tested the implications of these claims for human object processing in an event-related fMRI study in which we presented colored pictures of common objects for 19 subjects to name at two levels of specificity - basic and domain. We reasoned that domain-level naming requires access to a coarser-grained representation of objects, thus involving only posterior regions of the inferior temporal cortex. In contrast, basic-level naming requires finer-grained discrimination to differentiate between similar objects, and thus should involve anterior temporal regions, including the perirhinal cortex. We found that object processing always activated the fusiform gyrus bilaterally, irrespective of the task, whereas the perirhinal cortex was only activated when the task required finer-grained discriminations. These results suggest that the same kind of hierarchical structure, which has been proposed for object processing in the monkey temporal cortex, functions in the human.