The limits of visual sensitivity and its circadian control

Tutkimustuotos: OpinnäyteVäitöskirjaArtikkelikokoelma


At the sensitivity limit of vision, the quantal fluctuations of light and neural noise in the retina and the brain limit the detection of light signals. The challenge for vision, as for all senses, lies in separating the weakest signals from the neural noise originating within the sensory system. In this thesis, I studied sparse signal detection in the vertebrate visual system (mouse and frog) at low light levels from single retinal neurons to behavioral performance.

First, we determined the sensitivity limit of amphibian color vision at low light levels. Unlike most vertebrates, amphibians are potential dichromats even at night, with two spectrally distinct classes of rod photoreceptors: common vertebrate rods (peak sensitivity at 500 nm) and an additional class called “green rods” (peak sensitivity at 430 nm). We showed that frogs in a phototaxis experiment can distinguish blue from green down to their absolute visual threshold, meaning that they have wavelength discrimination as soon as they start seeing anything. Remarkably, the behavioral blue/green discrimination approached theoretical limits set by photon fluctuations and rod noise, highlighting the sensitivity of the system comparing signals from the two different photoreceptors. Additionally, we show that the amphibian threshold for color discrimination is task- and context-dependent, underlining that sensory discrimination is not universally driven to absolute physical limits, but depends on evolutionary trade-offs and flexible brain states.

In the second paper, we studied the impact of the circadian rhythm on the sensitivity limit of mouse vision. The retina has its own intrinsic circadian rhythms, which has led to the hypothesis that the sensitivity limit of vision would be under circadian control. We used a simple photon detection task, which allowed us to link well-defined retinal output signals to visually guided behavior. We found that mice have strikingly better performance in the visual task at night, so that they can reliably detect 10-fold dimmer light in the night than in the day. Interestingly, and contrary to previous hypotheses, this sensitivity difference did not arise in the retina, as assessed by spike recordings from retinal ganglion cells. Instead, mice utilize a more efficient search strategy in the task during the night. They are even able to apply the more efficient strategy at day once they have first performed the task during the night. Measured differences in search strategy explain only part of the day/night difference, however. We hypothesize that in addition there are diurnal changes in the state of brain circuits reading out the retinal input and making decisions.

In the third paper, we determined the sensitivity limit of decrement (shadow) detection of mouse vision. Compared with the question of ultimate limit for detecting light, the question of sensitivity limits for detecting light decrements (negative contrast) has been remarkably neglected. We recorded the OFF responses of the most sensitive retinal ganglion cells at dim background light levels and correlated the thresholds to visually guided behavior in tightly matched conditions. We show that compared with an ideal-observer model most of the losses happen in the retina and remarkably, the behavioral performance is very close to an optimal read-out of the retinal ganglion cells.

I have shown across visual tasks and in two different species how closely behavior in specific conditions can approach the performance limit set by physical constraints, rejecting noise and making use of every available photon. However, the actual performance strongly depends on the behavioral context and relevance of the task and state of the brain.
  • Ala-Laurila, Petri, Neuvonantaja
  • Donner, Kristian, Neuvonantaja
Painoksen ISBN978-951-51-6548-0
Sähköinen ISBN978-951-51-6549-7
TilaJulkaistu - 9 lokakuuta 2020
OKM-julkaisutyyppiG5 Tohtorinväitöskirja (artikkeli)


  • 3112 Neurotieteet

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