Sensory processing is strongly influenced by prior expectations. Valid expectations have been shown to lead to improvements in perception as well as in the quality of sensory representations in primary visual cortex. However, very little is known about the neural correlates of the expectations themselves. Previous studies have demonstrated increased activity in sensory cortex following the omission of an expected stimulus, yet it is unclear whether this increased activity constitutes a general surprise signal or rather has representational content. One intriguing possibility is that top–down expectation leads to the formation of a template of the expected stimulus in visual cortex, which can then be compared with subsequent bottom–up input. To test this hypothesis, we used fMRI to noninvasively measure neural activity patterns in early visual cortex of human participants during expected but omitted visual stimuli. Our results show that prior expectation of a specific visual stimulus evokes a feature-specific pattern of activity in the primary visual cortex (V1) similar to that evoked by the corresponding actual stimulus. These results are in line with the notion that prior expectation triggers the formation of specific stimulus templates to efficiently process expected sensory inputs.

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