Patients with semantic dementia (SD), a neurodegenerative disease affecting the anterior temporal lobes (ATL), present with striking cognitive deficits: they can have difficulties naming objects and familiar people from both pictures and descriptions. Furthermore, SD patients make semantic errors (e.g., naming “horse” a picture of a zebra), suggesting that their impairment affects object knowledge rather than lexical retrieval. Because SD can affect object categories as disparate as artifacts, animals, and people, as well as multiple input modalities, it has been hypothesized that ATL is a semantic hub that integrates information across multiple modality-specific brain regions into multimodal representations. With a series of converging experiments using multiple analysis techniques, Wang et al. test the proposal that ATL is a semantic hub in the case of person knowledge, investigating whether ATL: (i) encodes multimodal representations of identity, and (ii) mediates the retrieval of knowledge about people from representations of perceptual cues.The Wang et al. Significance and Abstract statements:
Knowledge about other people is critical for group survival and may have unique cognitive processing demands. Here, we investigate how person knowledge is represented, organized, and retrieved in the brain. We show that the anterior temporal lobe (ATL) stores abstract person identity representation that is commonly embedded in multiple sources (e.g. face, name, scene, and personal object). We also found the ATL serves as a “neural switchboard,” coordinating with a network of other brain regions in a rapid and need-specific way to retrieve different aspects of biographical information (e.g., occupation and personality traits). Our findings endorse the ATL as a central hub for representing and retrieving person knowledge.Abstract
Social behavior is often shaped by the rich storehouse of biographical information that we hold for other people. In our daily life, we rapidly and flexibly retrieve a host of biographical details about individuals in our social network, which often guide our decisions as we navigate complex social interactions. Even abstract traits associated with an individual, such as their political affiliation, can cue a rich cascade of person-specific knowledge. Here, we asked whether the anterior temporal lobe (ATL) serves as a hub for a distributed neural circuit that represents person knowledge. Fifty participants across two studies learned biographical information about fictitious people in a 2-d training paradigm. On day 3, they retrieved this biographical information while undergoing an fMRI scan. A series of multivariate and connectivity analyses suggest that the ATL stores abstract person identity representations. Moreover, this region coordinates interactions with a distributed network to support the flexible retrieval of person attributes. Together, our results suggest that the ATL is a central hub for representing and retrieving person knowledge.