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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1996 Jan 23;93(2):609-14.

Multineuronal codes in retinal signaling.

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  • 1Molecular and Cellular Biology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA.


The visual world is presented to the brain through patterns of action potentials in the population of optic nerve fibers. Single-neuron recordings show that each retinal ganglion cell has a spatially restricted receptive field, a limited integration time, and a characteristic spectral sensitivity. Collectively, these response properties define the visual message conveyed by that neuron's action potentials. Since the size of the optic nerve is strictly constrained, one expects the retina to generate a highly efficient representation of the visual scene. By contrast, the receptive fields of nearby ganglion cells often overlap, suggesting great redundancy among the retinal output signals. Recent multineuron recordings may help resolve this paradox. They reveal concerted firing patterns among ganglion cells, in which small groups of nearby neurons fire synchronously with delays of only a few milliseconds. As there are many more such firing patterns than ganglion cells, such a distributed code might allow the retina to compress a large number of distinct visual messages into a small number of optic nerve fibers. This paper will review the evidence for a distributed coding scheme in the retinal output. The performance limits of such codes are analyzed with simple examples, illustrating that they allow a powerful trade-off between spatial and temporal resolution.

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