Study maps primate neuronal brain activity to episodic experiences

A study by academics from several international universities, including Duke Kunshan, has deepened understanding of how the brain sifts through information in the dynamic environment to extract meaningful features.

The brain actively processes masses of information in ways that are influenced by current needs, interests, emotional states and memories. The research, published as a cover study in the Journal of Neuroscience, a flagship journal of the Society for Neuroscience, helped to identify the neural computation involved and how they change according to different features embedded in visual stimuli.

From left to right: study collaborators Sze Chai Kwok, Fu Zeng, Makoto Kusunoki, Lei Wang and Xufeng Zhou

The research team showed monkeys a series of short videos, divided into three categories – primates, other animals and scenery – while measuring their neuronal activity in an often-overlooked brain area, the dorsomedial posterior parietal cortex, using multi-unit electrophysiology. This revealed how neurons, nerve cells that send messages in the form of electric currents, reacted to different features within the videos as they processed information.

The study presents a compelling addition to our understanding of naturalistic viewing responses in the brain, and prompts re-evaluation of how neurons are multiplexing, or simultaneous encoding two or more signals, to different elements in our environment. The researchers hope their results could inspire others to contemplate how intricate details in the environment are processed while memories are being formed.

Cover of the Journal of Neuroscience where the research was published

Lei Wang, a former postdoctoral researcher from East China Normal University who previously also worked as a research intern at DKU, led the study, while Sze Chai Kwok, an associate professor of cognitive neuroscience at DKU acted as supervisor. Other collaborators included DKU graduate Mingfeng Cao, professors Huimin Wang, Aihua Chen, and Yong-di Zhou, post-doc Fu Zeng, MPhil graduate Shuzhen Zuo, current PhD students Xufeng Zhou and Jie Yang from East China Normal University, as well as Dr Makoto Kusunoki from The University of Oxford.

Kwok’s team plans further studies focused on understanding how the brain processes information from naturalistic settings, as part of a broader research program charting the fundamental principles of higher cognition in the brain. The team welcomes inquiries from potential PhD candidates and post-doctoral research fellows. More information can be found at The research received support from the National Natural Science Foundation of China.

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