Neurons in the medial superior temporal (MST) area of the primate visual cortex respond selectively to complex motion patterns defined by expansion, rotation, and deformation. Consequently they are often hypothesized to be involved in important behavioral functions, such as encoding the velocities of moving objects and surfaces relative to the observer. However, the computations underlying such selectivity are unknown. In this work we have developed a unique, naturalistic motion stimulus and used it to probe the complex selectivity of MST neurons. The resulting data were then used to estimate the properties of the feed-forward inputs to each neuron. This analysis yielded models that successfully accounted for much of the observed stimulus selectivity, provided that the inputs were combined via a nonlinear integration mechanism that approximates a multiplicative interaction among MST inputs. In simulations we found that this type of integration has the functional role of improving estimates of the 3D velocity of moving objects. As this computation is of general utility for detecting complex stimulus features, we suggest that it may represent a fundamental aspect of hierarchical sensory processing.
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