Exploring the parahippocampal cortex response to high and low spatial frequency spaces

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The posterior parahippocampal cortex (PHC) supports a range of cognitive functions, in particular scene processing. However, it has recently been suggested that PHC engagement during functional MRI simply reflects the representation of three-dimensional local space. If so, PHC should respond to space in the absence of scenes, geometric layout, objects or contextual associations. It has also been reported that PHC activation may be influenced by low-level visual properties of stimuli such as spatial frequency. Here, we tested whether PHC was responsive to the mere sense of space in highly simplified stimuli, and whether this was affected by their spatial frequency distribution. Participants were scanned using functional MRI while viewing depictions of simple three-dimensional space, and matched control stimuli that did not depict a space. Half the stimuli were low-pass filtered to ascertain the impact of spatial frequency. We observed a significant interaction between space and spatial frequency in bilateral PHC. Specifically, stimuli depicting space (more than nonspatial stimuli) engaged the right PHC when they featured high spatial frequencies. In contrast, the interaction in the left PHC did not show a preferential response to space. We conclude that a simple depiction of three-dimensional space that is devoid of objects, scene layouts or contextual associations is sufficient to robustly engage the right PHC, at least when high spatial frequencies are present. We suggest that coding for the presence of space may be a core function of PHC, and could explain its engagement in a range of tasks, including scene processing, where space is always present.

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