Visual imagery - similar to visual perception - activates feature-specific and category-specific visual areas. This is frequently observed in experiments where the instruction is to imagine stimuli that have been shown immediately before the imagery task. Hence, feature-specific activation could be related to the short-term memory retrieval of previously presented sensory information. Here, we investigated mental imagery of stimuli that subjects had not seen before, eliminating the effects of short-term memory. We recorded brain activation using fMRI while subjects performed a behaviourally controlled guided imagery task in predefined retinotopic coordinates to optimize sensitivity in early visual areas. Whole brain analyses revealed activation in a parieto-frontal network and lateral-occipital cortex. Region of interest (ROI) based analyses showed activation in left hMT/V5+. Granger causality mapping taking left hMT/V5+ as source revealed an imagery-specific directed influence from the left inferior parietal lobule (IPL). Interestingly, we observed a negative BOLD response in V1-3 during imagery, modulated by the retinotopic location of the imagined motion trace. Our results indicate that rule-based motion imagery can activate higher-order visual areas involved in motion perception, with a role for top-down directed influences originating in IPL. Lower-order visual areas (V1, V2 and V3) were down-regulated during this type of imagery, possibly reflecting inhibition to avoid visual input from interfering with the imagery construction. This suggests that the activation in early visual areas observed in previous studies might be related to short- or long-term memory retrieval of specific sensory experiences. © 2009 Elsevier Inc.
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