The study performed on a macaque monkey demystified the code used to relay color information to the brain and revealed “computations in a neural circuit at the elementary resolution of individual neurons.”
One of the essential elements that made the experiments possible was the unique neural recording system developed by an international team of high-energy physicists from the University of California, Santa Cruz; the AGH University of Science and Technology, Krakow, Poland; and the University of Glasgow, UK. This system is able to record simultaneously the tiny electrical signals generated by hundreds of the retinal output neurons that transmit information about the outside visual world to the brain. These recordings are made at high-speed (over ten million samples each second) and with fine spatial detail, sufficient to detect even a locally complete population of the tiny and densely spaced output cells known as “midget” retinal ganglion cells.
Visual processing begins when photons entering the eye strike one or more of the 125 million light-sensitive nerve cells in the retina. This first layer of cells, which are known as rods and cones, converts the information into electrical signals and sends them to an intermediate layer, which in turn relays signals to the 20 or so distinct types of retinal ganglion cells.
The Salk researchers simultaneously recorded hundreds of retinal ganglion cells, and based on density and light response properties, identified five cell types: ON and OFF midget cells, ON and OFF parasol cells, and small bistratified cells, which collectively account for approximately 75 percent of all retinal ganglion cells.
To resolve the fine structure of receptive fields-the small, irregularly shaped windows through which neurons in retina view the world-the authors used stimuli with tenfold smaller pixels.
When combined with information on spectral sensitivities of individual cones, maps of these punctate islands not only allowed the researchers to recreate the full cone mosaic found in the retina, but also to conclude which cone fed information to which retinal ganglion cell.
Chichilnisky [E.J. Chichilnisky, Ph.D., associate professor in the Systems Neurobiology Laboratories] and his team discovered that populations of ON and OFF midget and parasol cells each sampled the complete population of cones sensitive to red or green light, with midget cells sampling these cones in a surprisingly non-random fashion. Only OFF midget cells frequently received strong input from cones sensitive to blue light.
Abstract in Nature: Functional connectivity in the retina at the resolution of photoreceptors