What is Special About Expertise? Selective Neural Response to Objects of Expertise in Experts’ Ventral Visual Pathway

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Expert object recognition occurs when one learns through experience to identify quickly and accurately individual exemplars of a homogenous class, a process putatively associated with qualitative changes in perceptual processing. Since expertise has been mainly invoked as an alternative to the domain-specificity of face processing (Gauthier and co-workers), most neuroimaging studies of expertise are limited to face-selective regions of the ventral visual pathway, especially the fusiform face area. In contrast, the present study examined what the spatial extent of the neural activity to objects of expertise is, and how early in the visual processing stream can expertise-related selectivity be found. Car experts and novices were presented with three object categories: cars, airplanes and faces, while being scanned in a 1.5T MRI scanner. A one-back memory task was performed by all subjects. Differential BOLD-fMRI responses were found in car experts in response to cars compared to car novices. Whereas in car novices, activation for cars was restricted to medio-occipital regions, car experts showed a more widespread preferential activation, distributed over a large portion of the occipital and temporal cortex. We suggest that expert object recognition modulates visual perception, and that this modulation is reflected by neural activity in the experts’ visual cortex for objects in their domain of expertise, starting from early retinotopic areas of the visual stream to form a hypothesized distributed expert object recognition network


This abstract is from a paper that was presented at the Annual meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, 2005.