Representation of abstract semantic knowledge in populations of human single neurons in the medial temporal lobe

by Thomas P. Reber, Marcel Bausch, Sina Mackay, Jan Boström, Christian E. Elger, Florian Mormann

Sensory experience elicits complex activity patterns throughout the neocortex. Projections from the neocortex converge onto the medial temporal lobe (MTL), in which distributed neocortical firing patterns are distilled into sparse representations. The precise nature of these neuronal representations is still unknown. Here, we show that population activity patterns in the MTL are governed by high levels of semantic abstraction. We recorded human single-unit activity in the MTL (4,917 units, 25 patients) while subjects viewed 100 images grouped into 10 semantic categories of 10 exemplars each. High levels of semantic abstraction were indicated by representational similarity analyses (RSAs) of patterns elicited by individual stimuli. Moreover, pattern classifiers trained to decode semantic categories generalised successfully to unseen exemplars, and classifiers trained to decode exemplar identity more often confused exemplars of the same versus different categories. Semantic abstraction and generalisation may thus be key to efficiently distill the essence of an experience into sparse representations in the human MTL. Although semantic abstraction is efficient and may facilitate generalisation of knowledge to novel situations, it comes at the cost of a loss of detail and may be central to the generation of false memories.

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