A Mechanistic Link from GABA to Cortical Architecture and Perception.
Understanding both the organization of the human cortex and its relation to the performance of distinct functions is fundamental in neuroscience. The primary sensory cortices display topographic organization, whereby receptive fields follow a characteristic pattern, from tonotopy to retinotopy to somatotopy . GABAergic signaling is vital to the maintenance of cortical receptive fields ; however, it is unclear how this fine-grain inhibition relates to measurable patterns of perception [3, 4]. Based on perceptual changes following perturbation of the GABAergic system, it is conceivable that the resting level of cortical GABAergic tone directly relates to the spatial specificity of activation in response to a given input [5-7]. The specificity of cortical activation can be considered in terms of cortical tuning: greater cortical tuning yields more localized recruitment of cortical territory in response to a given input. We applied a combination of fMRI, MR spectroscopy, and psychophysics to substantiate the link between the cortical neurochemical milieu, the tuning of cortical activity, and variability in perceptual acuity, using human somatosensory cortex as a model. We provide data that explain human perceptual acuity in terms of both the underlying cellular and metabolic processes. Specifically, higher concentrations of sensorimotor GABA are associated with more selective cortical tuning, which in turn is associated with enhanced perception. These results show anatomical and neurochemical specificity and are replicated in an independent cohort. The mechanistic link from neurochemistry to perception provides a vital step in understanding population variability in sensory behavior, informing metabolic therapeutic interventions to restore perceptual abilities clinically.