Monday, August 31, 2015

Cats on Treadmills (and the plasticity of biological motion perception)

Cats on a treadmill. From Treadmill Kittens.

It's been an eventful week. The 10th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The 10th Anniversary of Optogenetics (with commentary from the neuroscience community and from the inventors). The Reproducibility Project's efforts to replicate 100 studies in cognitive and social psychology (published in Science). And the passing of the great writer and neurologist, Oliver Sacks. Oh, and Wes Craven just died too...

I'm not blogging about any of these events. Many many others have already written about them (see selected reading list below). And The Neurocritic has been feeling tapped out lately.

Hence the cats on treadmills. They're here to introduce a new study which demonstrated that early visual experience is not necessary for the perception of biological motion (Bottari et al., 2015). Biological motion perception involves the ability to understand and visually track the movement of a living being. This phenomenon is often studied using point light displays, as shown below in a demo from the BioMotion Lab. You should really check out their flash animation that allows you to view human, feline, and pigeon walkers moving from right to left, scrambled and unscrambled, masked and unmasked, inverted and right side up.

Biological Motion Perception Is Spared After Early Visual Deprivation

People born with dense, bilateral cataracts that are surgically removed at a later date show deficits in higher visual processing, including the perception of global motion, global form, faces, and illusory contours. Proper neural development during the critical, or sensitive period early in life is dependent on experience, in this case visual input. However, it seems that the perception of biological motion (BM) does not require early visual experience (Bottari et al., 2015).

Participants in the study were 12 individuals with congenital cataracts that were removed at a mean age of 7.8 years (range 4 months to 16 yrs). Age at testing was 17.8 years (range 10-35 yrs). The study assessed their biological motion thresholds (extracting BM from noise) and recorded their EEG to point light displays of a walking man and to scrambled versions of the walking man (see demo).

Behavioral performance on the BM threshold task didn't differ much between the congenital cataract (cc) and matched control (mc) groups (i.e., there was a lot of overlap between the filled diamonds and the open triangles below).

Modified from Fig. 1 (Bottari et al., 2015).

The event-related potentials (ERPs) averaged to presentations of the walking man vs. scrambled man showed the same pattern in cc and mc groups as well: larger to walking man (BM) than scrambled man (SBM).

Modified from Fig. 1 (Bottari et al., 2015).

The N1 component (the peak at about 0.25 sec post-stimulus) seems a little smaller in cc but that wasn't significant. On the other hand, the earlier P1 was significantly reduced in the cc group. Interestingly, the duration of visual deprivation, amount of visual experience, and post-surgical visual acuity did not correlate with the size of the N1.

The authors discuss three possible explanations for these results:
(1) The neural circuitries associated with the processing of BM can specialize in late childhood or adulthood. That is, as soon as visual input becomes available, initiates the functional maturation of the BM system. Alternatively the neural systems for BM might mature independently of vision. (2) Either they are shaped cross-modally or (3) they mature independent of experience.

They ultimately favor the third explanation, that "the neural systems for BM specialize independently of visual experience." They also point out that the ERPs to faces vs. scrambled faces in the cc group do not show the characteristic difference between these stimulus types. What's so special about biological motion, then? Here the authors wave their hands and arms a bit:
We can only speculate why these different developmental trajectories for faces and BM emerge: BM is characteristic for any type of living being and the major properties are shared across species. ... By contrast, faces are highly specific for a species and biases for the processing of faces from our own ethnicity and age have been shown.

It's more important to see if a bear is running towards you than it is to recognize faces, as anyone with congenital prosopagnosia ("face blindness") might tell you...


1 Troje & Westhoff (2006):
"The third sequence showed a walking cat. The data are based on a high-speed (200 fps) video sequence showing a cat walking on a treadmill. Fourteen feature points were manually sampled from single frames. As with the pigeon sequence, data were approximated with a third-order Fourier series to obtain a generic walking cycle."


Bottari, D., Troje, N., Ley, P., Hense, M., Kekunnaya, R., & Röder, B. (2015). The neural development of the biological motion processing system does not rely on early visual input Cortex, 71, 359-367 DOI: 10.1016/j.cortex.2015.07.029

Links to Pieces About Momentous Events

Remembering Katrina in the #BlackLivesMatter Movement by Tracey Ross

Hurricane Katrina Proved That If Black Lives Matter, So Must Climate Justice by Elizabeth Yeampierre

Project Katrina: A Decade of Resilience in New Orleans by Steven Gray

Hurricane Katrina, 10 Years Later, Buzzfeed's Katrina issue

ChR2: Anniversary: Optogenetics, special issue of Nature Neuroscience

ChR2 coming of age, editorial in Nature Neuroscience

Optogenetics and the future of neuroscience by Ed Boyden

Optogenetics: 10 years of microbial opsins in neuroscience by Karl Deisseroth

Optogenetics: 10 years after ChR2 in neurons—views from the community in Nature Neuroscience

10 years of neural opsins by Adam Calhoun

Estimating the reproducibility of psychological science in Science

Reproducibility Project: Psychology on Open Science Framework

How Reliable Are Psychology Studies? by Ed Yong

The Bayesian Reproducibility Project by Alexander Etz

A Life Well Lived, by those who maintain the Oliver Sacks, M.D. website.

Oliver Sacks, Neurologist Who Wrote About the Brain’s Quirks, Dies at 82, NY Times obituary

Oliver Sacks has left the building by Vaughan Bell

My Own Life, Oliver Sacks on Learning He Has Terminal Cancer

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