Time-resolved fMRI of mental rotation revisited-dissociating visual perception from mental rotation in female subjects

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Functional neuroimaging studies have demonstrated that mental rotation paradigms activate a network of spatially distributed cortical areas rather than a discrete brain region. Although the neuro-anatomical nodes of the rotation network are well established, their specific functional role is less well identified. It was the aim of the present study to dissociate network components involved in the visual perception of 3D cubic objects from regions involved in their mental spatial transformation. This was achieved by desynchronizing the time course of the perceptional process (i.e., stimulus duration) from the duration of the cognitive process (i.e., reaction times) and by comparing these with the temporal characteristics of the hemodynamic response functions (HRFs) in regions of interest. To minimize intersubject variability, an all-female subject group was chosen for this investigation. Time-resolved fMRI analysis revealed a significant increase in the full width at half maximum (FWHM) of the HRF with reaction times in the supplementary motor area (pre-SMA), in the bilateral premotor cortex (PMd-proper), and in the left parietal lobe (PP). The FWHM in visual system components such as the bilateral lateral occipital complex (LOC) and dorsal extrastriate visual areas (DE) was constant across trials and roughly equal to the stimulus duration. These findings suggest that visual system activation during mental rotation reflects visual perception and can be dissociated from other network components whose response characteristics indicates an involvement in the mental spatial transformation itself.

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