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Learning and representation of hierarchical concepts in hippocampus and prefrontal cortex

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Theves,  Stephanie
Department Psychology (Doeller), MPI for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Max Planck Society;
Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, Radboud University, Nijmegen, the Netherlands;

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Doeller,  Christian F.
Department Psychology (Doeller), MPI for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Max Planck Society;
Egil and Pauline Braathen and Fred Kavli Centre for Cortical Microcircuits, Kavli Institute, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, Norway;
Institute of Psychology, University of Leipzig, Germany;

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Citation

Theves, S., Neville, D. A., Fernández, G., & Doeller, C. F. (2021). Learning and representation of hierarchical concepts in hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. The Journal of Neuroscience, 41(36), 7675-7686. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0657-21.2021.


Cite as: http://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-0009-418E-E
Abstract
A key aspect of conceptual knowledge is that it can be flexibly applied at different levels of abstraction, implying a hierarchical organization. It is yet unclear how this hierarchical structure is acquired and represented in the brain. Here we investigate the computations underlying the acquisition and representation of the hierarchical structure of conceptual knowledge in the hippocampal-prefrontal system of 32 human participants (22 females). We assessed the hierarchical nature of learning during a novel tree-like categorization task via computational model comparisons. The winning model allowed to extract and quantify estimates for accumulation and updating of hierarchical compared with single-feature-based concepts from behavior. We find that mPFC tracks accumulation of hierarchical conceptual knowledge over time, and mPFC and hippocampus both support trial-to-trial updating. As a function of those learning parameters, mPFC and hippocampus further show connectivity changes to rostro-lateral PFC, which ultimately represented the hierarchical structure of the concept in the final stages of learning. Our results suggest that mPFC and hippocampus support the integration of accumulated evidence and instantaneous updates into hierarchical concept representations in rostro-lateral PFC.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT A hallmark of human cognition is the flexible use of conceptual knowledge at different levels of abstraction, ranging from a coarse category level to a fine-grained subcategory level. While previous work probed the representational geometry of long-term category knowledge, it is unclear how this hierarchical structure inherent to conceptual knowledge is acquired and represented. By combining a novel hierarchical concept learning task with computational modeling of categorization behavior and concurrent fMRI, we differentiate the roles of key concept learning regions in hippocampus and PFC in learning computations and the representation of a hierarchical category structure.