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PLOS ONE  2012 

Cortical Plasticity as a Mechanism for Storing Bayesian Priors in Sensory Perception

DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0010497

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Abstract:

Human perception of ambiguous sensory signals is biased by prior experiences. It is not known how such prior information is encoded, retrieved and combined with sensory information by neurons. Previous authors have suggested dynamic encoding mechanisms for prior information, whereby top-down modulation of firing patterns on a trial-by-trial basis creates short-term representations of priors. Although such a mechanism may well account for perceptual bias arising in the short-term, it does not account for the often irreversible and robust changes in perception that result from long-term, developmental experience. Based on the finding that more frequently experienced stimuli gain greater representations in sensory cortices during development, we reasoned that prior information could be stored in the size of cortical sensory representations. For the case of auditory perception, we use a computational model to show that prior information about sound frequency distributions may be stored in the size of primary auditory cortex frequency representations, read-out by elevated baseline activity in all neurons and combined with sensory-evoked activity to generate a percept that conforms to Bayesian integration theory. Our results suggest an alternative neural mechanism for experience-induced long-term perceptual bias in the context of auditory perception. They make the testable prediction that the extent of such perceptual prior bias is modulated by both the degree of cortical reorganization and the magnitude of spontaneous activity in primary auditory cortex. Given that cortical over-representation of frequently experienced stimuli, as well as perceptual bias towards such stimuli is a common phenomenon across sensory modalities, our model may generalize to sensory perception, rather than being specific to auditory perception.

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