Encoding of Target Detection during Visual Search by Single Neurons in the Human Brain

Neurons in the primate medial temporal lobe (MTL) respond selectively to visual categories such as faces, contributing to how the brain represents stimulus meaning. However, it remains unknown whether MTL neurons continue to encode stimulus meaning when it changes flexibly as a function of variable task demands imposed by goal-directed behavior. While classically associated with long-term memory, recent lesion and neuroimaging studies show that the MTL also contributes critically to the online guidance of goal-directed behaviors such as visual search. Do such tasks modulate responses of neurons in the MTL, and if so, do their responses mirror bottom-up input from visual cortices or do they reflect more abstract goal-directed properties? To answer these questions, we performed concurrent recordings of eye movements and single neurons in the MTL and medial frontal cortex (MFC) in human neurosurgical patients performing a memory-guided visual search task. We identified a distinct population of target-selective neurons in both the MTL and MFC whose response signaled whether the currently fixated stimulus was a target or distractor. This target-selective response was invariant to visual category and predicted whether a target was detected or missed behaviorally during a given fixation. The response latencies, relative to fixation onset, of MFC target-selective neurons preceded those in the MTL by ∼200 ms, suggesting a frontal origin for the target signal. The human MTL thus represents not only fixed stimulus identity, but also task-specified stimulus relevance due to top-down goal relevance.

Keywords: amygdala; category selectivity; goal relevance; hippocampus; human single neuron; medial frontal cortex; medial temporal lobe; response latency; target detection; visual search.