An evolutionary scaling law for the primate visual system and its basis in cortical function

Nature. 2001 May 10;411(6834):193-5. doi: 10.1038/35075572.


A hallmark of mammalian brain evolution is the disproportionate increase in neocortical size as compared with subcortical structures. Because primary visual cortex (V1) is the most thoroughly understood cortical region, the visual system provides an excellent model in which to investigate the evolutionary expansion of neocortex. I have compared the numbers of neurons in the visual thalamus (lateral geniculate nucleus; LGN) and area V1 across primate species. Here I find that the number of V1 neurons increases as the 3/2 power of the number of LGN neurons. As a consequence of this scaling law, the human, for example, uses four times as many V1 neurons per LGN neuron (356) to process visual information as does a tarsier (87). I argue that the 3/2 power relationship is a natural consequence of the organization of V1, together with the requirement that spatial resolution in V1 should parallel the maximum resolution provided by the LGN. The additional observation that thalamus/neocortex follows the same evolutionary scaling law as LGN/V1 may suggest that neocortex generally conforms to the same organizational principle as V1.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Cell Count
  • Geniculate Bodies / anatomy & histology*
  • Geniculate Bodies / cytology
  • Geniculate Bodies / physiology
  • Humans
  • Models, Neurological
  • Neocortex / anatomy & histology*
  • Neocortex / cytology
  • Neocortex / physiology*
  • Neurons / cytology
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Primates / anatomy & histology*
  • Primates / physiology
  • Visual Cortex / anatomy & histology
  • Visual Cortex / cytology
  • Visual Cortex / physiology
  • Visual Pathways / anatomy & histology*
  • Visual Pathways / cytology
  • Visual Pathways / physiology*
  • Visual Perception / physiology