Radial bias is not necessary for orientation decoding

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Multivariate pattern analysis can be used to decode the orientation of a viewed grating from fMRI signals in early visual areas. Although some studies have reported identifying multiple sources of the orientation information that make decoding possible, a recent study argued that orientation decoding is only possible because of a single source: a coarse-scale retinotopically organized preference for radial orientations. Here we aim to resolve these discrepant findings. We show that there were subtle, but critical, experimental design choices that led to the erroneous conclusion that a radial bias is the only source of orientation information in fMRI signals. In particular, we show that the reliance on a fast temporal-encoding paradigm for spatial mapping can be problematic, as effects of space and time become conflated and lead to distorted estimates of a voxel's orientation or retinotopic preference. When we implement minor changes to the temporal paradigm or to the visual stimulus itself, by slowing the periodic rotation of the stimulus or by smoothing its contrast-energy profile, we find significant evidence of orientation information that does not originate from radial bias. In an additional block-paradigm experiment where space and time were not conflated, we apply a formal model comparison approach and find that many voxels exhibit more complex tuning properties than predicted by radial bias alone or in combination with other known coarse-scale biases. Our findings support the conclusion that radial bias is not necessary for orientation decoding. In addition, our study highlights potential limitations of using temporal phase-encoded fMRI designs for characterizing voxel tuning properties.

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