Thursday, October 11, 2007

How we see over 10,000-fold changes in light intensity

The first 35 years of my professional life were spent studying the excitation and adaptation of photoreceptor cells. This motivates me to point out a beautiful piece of work by Dunn et al. showing how different circuits in the retina collaborate to let us see over an amazingly wide range of environmental light intensities. Here is their abstract, and figures from the paper showing the cells involved:
We see over an enormous range of mean light levels, greater than the range of output signals retinal neurons can produce. Even highlights and shadows within a single visual scene can differ approximately 10,000-fold in intensity—exceeding the range of distinct neural signals by a factor of approximately 100. The effectiveness of daylight vision under these conditions relies on at least two retinal mechanisms that adjust sensitivity in the approximately 200 ms intervals between saccades. One mechanism is in the cone photoreceptors (receptor adaptation)and the other is at a previously unknown location within the retinal circuitry that benefits from convergence of signals from multiple cones (post-receptor adaptation). Here we find that post-receptor adaptation occurs as signals are relayed from cone bipolar cells to ganglion cells. Furthermore, we find that the two adaptive mechanisms are essentially mutually exclusive: as light levels increase the main site of adaptation switches from the circuitry to the cones. These findings help explain how human cone vision encodes everyday scenes, and, more generally, how sensory systems handle the challenges posed by a diverse physical environment.

Figure 1: Midget and parasol ganglion cells adapt at lower backgrounds than L cones. Schematic of primate midget and parasol pathways with fluorescent images of cones in slice and ganglion cells in flat mount.

Figure 2: Post-receptor adaptation occurs in signal transfer from cone bipolar cells to ganglion cells. The figure shows fluorescent images of a midget cone bipolar cell (left panel) and a diffuse cone bipolar cell (right panel) in slice. OPL, outer plexiform layer; INL, inner nuclear layer; IPL, inner plexiform layer.

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