On the classification of simple and complex cells

Vision Res. 2002 Apr;42(8):1017-33. doi: 10.1016/s0042-6989(02)00025-1.


In their pioneering studies of primary visual cortex, Hubel and Wiesel described the existence of two classes of cells, which they termed "simple" and "complex". The original classification scheme was based on a number of partly subjective tests of linear spatial summation. Later, investigators adopted an objective classification method based on the ratio between the amplitude of the first harmonic of the response and the mean spike rate (or the F(1)/F(0) ratio) when the neuron is stimulated with drifting sinusoidal gratings. This measure is bimodally distributed over the population and divides neurons into two classes that correspond closely to the classical definition by Hubel and Wiesel. Here we show that a simple rectification model can predict the observed bimodal distribution of F(1)/F(0) in primary visual cortex when the distributions of the intracellular response modulation and mean are unimodal. Thus, contrary to common belief, the bimodality of F(1)/F(0) does not necessarily imply the existence of two discrete cell classes. Furthermore, in reviewing the literature, we find no independent support for a simple/complex dichotomy. These results suggest that the existence of two distinct neural populations in primary visual cortex, and the associated hierarchical model of receptive field organization, need to be re-evaluated.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Electrophysiology
  • Humans
  • Models, Neurological*
  • Neurons / classification*
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Visual Cortex / cytology*
  • Visual Cortex / physiology