How the optic nerve allocates space, energy capacity, and information

J Neurosci. 2009 Jun 17;29(24):7917-28. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.5200-08.2009.


Fiber tracts should use space and energy efficiently, because both resources constrain neural computation. We found for a myelinated tract (optic nerve) that astrocytes use nearly 30% of the space and >70% of the mitochondria, establishing the significance of astrocytes for the brain's space and energy budgets. Axons are mostly thin with a skewed distribution peaking at 0.7 microm, near the lower limit set by channel noise. This distribution is matched closely by the distribution of mean firing rates measured under naturalistic conditions, suggesting that firing rate increases proportionally with axon diameter. In axons thicker than 0.7 microm, mitochondria occupy a constant fraction of axonal volume--thus, mitochondrial volumes rise as the diameter squared. These results imply a law of diminishing returns: twice the information rate requires more than twice the space and energy capacity. We conclude that the optic nerve conserves space and energy by sending most information at low rates over fine axons with small terminal arbors and sending some information at higher rates over thicker axons with larger terminal arbors but only where more bits per second are needed for a specific purpose. Thicker axons seem to be needed, not for their greater conduction velocity (nor other intrinsic electrophysiological purpose), but instead to support larger terminal arbors and more active zones that transfer information synaptically at higher rates.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Action Potentials / physiology
  • Animals
  • Astrocytes / ultrastructure
  • Axons / physiology
  • Energy Metabolism / physiology*
  • Guinea Pigs
  • Male
  • Microscopy, Electron, Transmission / methods
  • Mitochondria / metabolism
  • Mitochondria / ultrastructure
  • Nerve Fibers, Myelinated / physiology
  • Nerve Fibers, Myelinated / ultrastructure
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Neurons / ultrastructure
  • Optic Nerve / cytology*
  • Optic Nerve / physiology*
  • Optic Nerve / ultrastructure
  • Ranvier's Nodes / ultrastructure
  • Retinal Ganglion Cells / cytology
  • Retinal Ganglion Cells / physiology*
  • Sodium / metabolism
  • Visual Pathways / metabolism
  • Visual Pathways / ultrastructure


  • Sodium