Tom Baden, Timm Schubert, Philipp Berens, and Thomas Euler
Visual processing begins in the retina—a thin, multilayered neuronal tissue lining the back of the vertebrate eye. The retina does not merely read out the constant stream of photons impinging on its dense array of photoreceptor cells. Instead it performs a first, extensive analysis of the visual scene, while constantly adapting its sensitivity range to the input statistics, such as the brightness or contrast distribution. The functional organization of the retina abides to several key organizational principles. These include overlapping and repeating instances of both divergence and convergence, constant and dynamic range-adjustments, and (perhaps most importantly) decomposition of image information into parallel channels. This is often referred to as “parallel processing.” To support this, the retina features a large diversity of neurons organized in functionally overlapping microcircuits that typically uniformly sample the retinal surface in a regular mosaic. Ultimately, each circuit drives spike trains in the retina’s output neurons, the retinal ganglion cells. Their axons form the optic nerve to convey multiple, distinctive, and often already heavily processed views of the world to higher visual centers in the brain.
From an experimental point of view, the retina is a neuroscientist’s dream. While part of the central nervous system, the retina is largely self-contained, and depending on the species, it receives little feedback from downstream stages. This means that the tissue can be disconnected from the rest of the brain and studied in a dish for many hours without losing its functional integrity, all while retaining excellent experimental control over the exclusive natural network input: the visual stimulus. Once removed from the eyecup, the retina can be flattened, thus its neurons are easily accessed optically or using visually guided electrodes. Retinal tiling means that function studied at any one place can usually be considered representative for the entire tissue. At the same time, species-dependent specializations offer the opportunity to study circuits adapted to different visual tasks: for example, in case of our fovea, high-acuity vision. Taken together, today the retina is amongst the best understood complex neuronal tissues of the vertebrate brain.
Tatyana O. Sharpee
Sensory systems exist to provide an organism with information about the state of the environment that can be used to guide future actions and decisions. Remarkably, two conceptually simple yet general theorems from information theory can be used to evaluate the performance of any sensory system. One theorem states that there is a minimal amount of energy that an organism has to spend in order to capture a given amount of information about the environment. The second theorem states that the maximum rate with which the organism can acquire resources from the environment, relative to its competitors, is limited by the information this organism collects about the environment, also relative to its competitors.
These two theorems provide a scaffold for formulating and testing general principles of sensory coding but leave unanswered many important practical questions of implementation in neural circuits. These implementation questions have guided thinking in entire subfields of sensory neuroscience, and include: What features in the sensory environment should be measured? Given that we make decisions on a variety of time scales, how should one solve trade-offs between making simpler measurements to guide minimal decisions vs. more elaborate sensory systems that have to overcome multiple delays between sensation and action. Once we agree on the types of features that are important to represent, how should they be represented? How should resources be allocated between different stages of processing, and where is the impact of noise most damaging? Finally, one should consider trade-offs between implementing a fixed strategy vs. an adaptive scheme that readjusts resources based on current needs. Where adaptation is considered, under what conditions does it become optimal to switch strategies? Research over the past 60 years has provided answers to almost all of these questions but primarily in early sensory systems. Joining these answers into a comprehensive framework is a challenge that will help us understand who we are and how we can make better use of limited natural resources.
Anitha Pasupathy, Yasmine El-Shamayleh, and Dina V. Popovkina
Humans and other primates rely on vision. Our visual system endows us with the ability to perceive, recognize, and manipulate objects, to avoid obstacles and dangers, to choose foods appropriate for consumption, to read text, and to interpret facial expressions in social interactions. To support these visual functions, the primate brain captures a high-resolution image of the world in the retina and, through a series of intricate operations in the cerebral cortex, transforms this representation into a percept that reflects the physical characteristics of objects and surfaces in the environment. To construct a reliable and informative percept, the visual system discounts the influence of extraneous factors such as illumination, occlusions, and viewing conditions. This perceptual “invariance” can be thought of as the brain’s solution to an inverse inference problem in which the physical factors that gave rise to the retinal image are estimated. While the processes of perception and recognition seem fast and effortless, it is a challenging computational problem that involves a substantial proportion of the primate brain.