Symmetry breakdown in the ON and OFF pathways of the retina at night: Functional implications
Retinal Ganglion Cells
Several recent studies have shown that the ON and OFF channels of the visual system are not simple mirror images of each other, that their response characteristics are asymmetric (Chichilnisky and Kalmar, 2002; Sagdullaev and McCall, 2005). How the asymmetries bear on visual processing is not well understood. Here, we show that ON and OFF ganglion cells show a strong asymmetry in their temporal adaptation to photopic (day) and scotopic (night) conditions and that the asymmetry confers a functional advantage. Under photopic conditions, the ON and OFF ganglion cells show similar temporal characteristics. Under scotopic conditions, the two cell classes diverge-ON cells shift their tuning to low temporal frequencies, whereas OFF cells continue to respond to high. This difference in processing corresponds to an asymmetry in the natural world, one produced by the Poisson nature of photon capture and persists over a broad range of light levels. This work characterizes a previously unknown divergence in the ON and OFF pathways and its utility to visual processing. Furthermore, the results have implications for downstream circuitry and thus offer new constraints for models of downstream processing, since ganglion cells serve as building blocks for circuits in higher brain areas. For example, if simple cells in visual cortex rely on complementary interactions between the two pathways, such as push-pull interactions (Alonso et al., 2001; Hirsch, 2003), their receptive fields may be radically different under scotopic conditions, when the ON and OFF pathways are out of sync.