Inferring neural responses from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data is challenging. Even if we take advantage of high-field systems to acquire data with submillimeter resolution, we are still acquiring data in which a single datum summarizes the responses of tens of thousands of neurons. Excitation and inhibition, spikes and subthreshold membrane potential modulations, local and long-range computations, and tuned and nonselective responses are mixed together in one signal. With a priori knowledge of the underlying neural population responses, careful experiment design allows us to manipulate the experiment or task design so that subpopulations are selectively modulated, and our experiments can reveal those tuning functions. However, because we want to be able to use fMRI to discover new kinds of tuning functions and selectivity, we cannot limit ourselves to experiments in which we already know what we are looking for. Broadly speaking, analyses that rely on classification of responses that are distributed across the local neural population [multi-voxel pattern analyses (MVPA)] offer the ability to discover new kinds of information representation and selectivities in neural subpopulations. There is, however, no way to determine how the information discovered with MVPA or other analyses is related to the underlying neuronal tuning functions. Therefore, we must continue to rely on behavioral, computational, and animal models to develop theories of information representation in mid-tier visual cortical areas. Once encoding models exist, fMRI can be powerful for testing these a priori models of information representation. As an aide in developing these models, an important contribution that fMRI can make to our understanding of mid-tier visual areas is derived from connectivity analyses and experiments that study information sharing between visual areas. This ability to quantify localized population average responses throughout the brain is the strength we can best leverage to discover new properties of local and long-range neural networks.
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- Visual hierarchy