How Much the Eye Tells the Brain

July 26, 2006
How Much the Eye Tells the Brain
Two broad classes of ganglion cell types in the guinea pig retina: brisk cells, which are larger and transmit electrical impulses faster, and sluggish, which are smaller and slower. Credit: Kristin Koch,University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine; Current Biology

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine estimate that the human retina can transmit visual input at about the same rate as an Ethernet connection, one of the most common local area network systems used today. They present their findings in the July issue of Current Biology. This line of scientific questioning points to ways in which neural systems compare to artificial ones, and can ultimately inform the design of artificial visual systems.

Much research on the basic science of vision asks what types of information the brain receives; this study instead asked how much. Using an intact retina from a guinea pig, the researchers recorded spikes of electrical impulses from ganglion cells using a miniature multi-electrode array. The investigators calculate that the human retina can transmit data at roughly 10 million bits per second. By comparison, an Ethernet can transmit information between computers at speeds of 10 to 100 million bits per second.

The retina is actually a piece of the brain that has grown into the eye and processes neural signals when it detects light. Ganglion cells carry information from the retina to the higher brain centers; other nerve cells within the retina perform the first stages of analysis of the visual world. The axons of the retinal ganglion cells, with the support of other types of cells, form the optic nerve and carry these signals to the brain.

Investigators have known for decades that there are 10 to 15 ganglion cell types in the retina that are adapted for picking up different movements and then work together to send a full picture to the brain. The study estimated the amount of information that is carried to the brain by seven of these ganglion cell types.

The guinea pig retina was placed in a dish and then presented with movies containing four types of biological motion, for example a salamander swimming in a tank to represent an object-motion stimulus. After recording electrical spikes on an array of electrodes, the researchers classified each cell into one of two broad classes: “brisk” or “sluggish,” so named because of their speed.

The researchers found that the electrical spike patterns differed between cell types. For example, the larger, brisk cells fired many spikes per second and their response was highly reproducible. In contrast, the smaller, sluggish cells fired fewer spikes per second and their responses were less reproducible.

But, what’s the relationship between these spikes and information being sent? “It’s the combinations and patterns of spikes that are sending the information. The patterns have various meanings,” says co-author Vijay Balasubramanian, PhD, Professor of Physics at Penn. “We quantify the patterns and work out how much information they convey, measured in bits per second.”

Calculating the proportions of each cell type in the retina, the team estimated that about 100,000 guinea pig ganglion cells transmit about 875,000 bits of information per second. Because sluggish cells are more numerous, they account for most of the information. With about 1,000,000 ganglion cells, the human retina would transmit data at roughly the rate of an Ethernet connection, or 10 million bits per second.

“Spikes are metabolically expensive to produce,” says lead author Kristin Koch, a PhD student in the lab of senior author Peter Sterling, PhD, Professor of Neuroscience. “Our findings hint that sluggish cells might be ‘cheaper,’ metabolically speaking, because they send more information per spike. If a message must be sent at a high rate, the brain uses the brisk channels. But if a message can afford to be sent more slowly, the brain uses the sluggish channels and pays a lower metabolic cost.”

“In terms of sending visual information to the brain, these brisk cells are the Fedex of the optic system, versus the sluggish cells, which are the equivalent of the U.S. mail,” notes Sterling. “Sluggish cells have not been studied that closely until now. The amazing thing is that when it’s all said and done, the sluggish cells turned out to be the most important in terms of the amount of information sent.”

Study co-authors are Judith McLean and Michael A. Freed, from Penn, and Ronen Segev and Michael J. Berry III, from Princeton University. The research was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

Source: University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine

Explore further: Eyes as a portal to cardiovascular risk factors

Related Stories

Eyes as a portal to cardiovascular risk factors

January 7, 2018
Researchers from Google Research, Verily Life Sciences, and the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine, Stanford School of Medicine, are showing that the eyes have it in offering a portal to one's health status.

Discovery brings stem cell therapy for eye disease closer to the clinic

January 2, 2018
Scientists at the National Eye Institute (NEI), part of the National Institutes of Health, report that tiny tube-like protrusions called primary cilia on cells of the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE)—a layer of cells in ...

Little understood cell helps mice see color

December 14, 2017
Researchers at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus have discovered that color vision in mice is far more complex than originally thought, opening the door to experiments that could potentially lead to new treatments ...

Navigation system of brain cells decoded

October 25, 2017
The human brain contains roughly 100 billion neurons. Information among them is transmitted via a complex network of nerve fibers. Hardwiring of most of this network takes place before birth according to a genetic blueprint, ...

Research reveals biological mechanism of a leading cause of childhood blindness

November 16, 2017
Scientists at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute (VTCRI) have revealed the pathology of cells and structures stricken by optic nerve hypoplasia, a leading cause of childhood blindness in developed nations.

Scientists discover potential treatment to stop glaucoma in its tracks

November 6, 2017
Vision scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Toronto have discovered that naturally occurring molecules known as lipid mediators have the potential to halt the progression of glaucoma, ...

Recommended for you

Creation of synthetic horsepox virus could lead to more effective smallpox vaccine

January 19, 2018
UAlberta researchers created a new synthetic virus that could lead to the development of a more effective vaccine against smallpox. The discovery demonstrates how techniques based on the use of synthetic DNA can be used to ...

Novel genomic tools provide new insight into human immune system

January 19, 2018
When the body is under attack from pathogens, the immune system marshals a diverse collection of immune cells to work together in a tightly orchestrated process and defend the host against the intruders. For many decades, ...

Researchers illustrate how muscle growth inhibitor is activated, could aid in treating ALS

January 19, 2018
Researchers at the University of Cincinnati (UC) College of Medicine are part of an international team that has identified how the inactive or latent form of GDF8, a signaling protein also known as myostatin responsible for ...

Women run faster after taking newly developed supplement, study finds

January 19, 2018
A new study found that women who took a specially prepared blend of minerals and nutrients for a month saw their 3-mile run times drop by almost a minute.

Intensive behavior therapy no better than conventional support in treating teenagers with antisocial behavior

January 19, 2018
Research led by UCL has found that intensive and costly multisystemic therapy is no better than conventional therapy in treating teenagers with moderate to severe antisocial behaviour.

Investigators eye new target for treating movement disorders

January 19, 2018
Blocking a nerve-cell receptor in part of the brain that coordinates movement could improve the treatment of Parkinson's disease, dyskinesia and other movement disorders, researchers at Vanderbilt University have reported.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.