Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Perceptual learning involves the specific and relatively permanent modification of perception following a sensory experience. In psychophysical experiments, the specificity of the learning effects to the trained stimulus attributes (e.g., visual field position or stimulus orientation) is often attributed to assumed neural modifications at an early cortical site within the visual processing hierarchy. We directly investigated a neural correlate of perceptual learning in the primary visual cortex using fMRI. Twenty volunteers practiced a curvature discrimination on Kanizsa-type illusory contours in the MR scanner. Practice-induced changes in the BOLD response to illusory contours were compared between the pretraining and the posttraining block in those areas of the primary visual cortex (V1) that, in the same session, had been identified to represent real contours at corresponding visual field locations. A retinotopically specific BOLD signal increase to illusory contours was observed as a consequence of the training, possibly signaling the formation of a contour representation, which is necessary for performing the curvature discrimination. The effects of perceptual training were maintained over a period of about 10 months, and they were specific to the trained visual field position. The behavioral specificity of the learning effects supports an involvement of V1 in perceptual learning, and not in unspecific attentional effects.