A Look Inside the Visual System: Advancements in How the Brain Processes Perception 

May 12, 2022

Though the visual world is a constant stream of information, we perceive the world not as an overwhelming flood of light, but as discrete events, with clear settings and distinct objects. For example, the scene in front of you: a room, a monitor or mobile phone, and this text. How does the brain assimilate this visual input? How can we use this information in the next frontier of research? 

Dr. Radoslaw Cichy is a Research Group Leader at the Free University of Berlin and a recipient of the 2022 FABBS Early Career Impact Award, as nominated by the Vision Sciences Society (VSS) for his unique and cutting-edge perspective on studying object recognition. As the connections between artificial intelligence and biological science grow, Dr. Cichy’s work in investigating the visual processing system provides critical information that helps neuroscientists and engineers in these fields mutually move forward. 

Dr. Cichy seeks to improve the understanding of how brains perceive visual objects, how this perception changes over the course of the lifespan, and the plasticity of this development. He poses: “what we have to answer is three simple questions; what is happening where and when in the brain when we see?” 

According to Dr. Cichy, the field is restricted severely by available methods. “There are techniques that tell you when something is happening in the brain. There are techniques that tell you where in the brain this is happening. There is no super-technique that does both at the same time. You need a trick for that,” Dr. Cichy remarks. 

Mindful of that critical gap in knowledge, Dr. Cichy’s team innovatively combines a series of non-invasive techniques to understand what is happening in the brain in real time. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is used to measure blood flow changes related to neural activity with good spatial resolution but lacks in identifying temporal changes. Magnetoencephalography and electroencephalography (M/EEG) are great for measuring changes over time, but they lack the spatial precision. So, he thought of new ways to put them together. 

By showing participants a series of objects, Dr. Cichy’s lab can monitor information related to visual encoding with high spatial and temporal resolution. He uses this revolutionary combined approach to evaluate how various brain regions react to visual stimuli over time. 

These techniques can be applied throughout the lifespan, from infant research, to investigating how elderly patients with Alzheimer’s respond to visual training. 

In a second research direction, Dr. Cichy’s team aims to surpass mapping—of where and when activity happens in the brain when we see—and address what is happening there algorithmically. With a research team at MIT led by Drs. Aude Oliva and Gemma Roig from Goethe University Frankfurt, Cichy co-founded the Algonauts Project, an open challenge for scientists to test how well their computational models predict brain activity. By open sourcing these data to scientists, policymakers, and the public, Dr. Cichy and the co-founders hope to pinpoint good models, accelerate research, and increase accessibility and reproducibility. 

These findings go beyond a better understanding of visual cognition. They can help us improve basic neuroscience models, computational modeling, and even artificial intelligence. 

For example, what can this tell us about the plasticity of the brain in people with blindness or visually impairments? What if we could apply these findings to other areas? “Can we find computational models which are going to predict brain activity through abstract concepts to see if we can understand how the brain codes something like love, justice, democracy, or religion?” Cichy suggests. Moving a step further, this information has potential to guide the design of more advanced artificial intelligence technology. 

Can we find computational models which are going to predict brain activity through abstract concepts to see if we can understand how the brain codes something like love, justice, democracy, or religion?

– Dr. Radoslaw Cichy

Dr. Radoslaw Cichy is also the recipient of a German Emmy Noether Award and an ERC Starting Grant, two prestigious awards that speak to the high impact of his work. He has published over 40 peer-reviewed articles, including reports in Nature Neuroscience and Neuron.

Potential for Future Impact

  • Improving measurement techniques for studying changes to visual cognition, from infancy through the lifespan to elderly individuals.
  • Optimizing open science research approaches to increase collaboration and discovery.
  • Applying these findings to advance basic neuroscience, artificial intelligence models, and medical fields.

Dr. Radoslaw M. Cichy is a recipient of the 2022 Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences (FABBS) Early Career Impact Award and was nominated by the Vision Sciences Society (VSS).

VSS 2022, the 22nd Annual Society Conference, takes place in St. Pete Beach, FL, on May 13-16, 2022. See more about the conference here

You can read more about Dr. Cichy’s work at the links below: 

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