Neurons in the primary visual cortex receive subliminal information originating from the periphery of their receptive fields (RF) through a variety of cortical connections. In the cat primary visual cortex, long-range horizontal axons have been reported to preferentially bind to distant columns of similar orientation preferences, whereas feedback connections from higher visual areas provide a more diverse functional input. To understand the role of these lateral interactions, it is crucial to characterize their effective functional connectivity and tuning properties. However, the overall functional impact of cortical lateral connections, whatever their anatomical origin, is unknown since it has never been directly characterized. Using direct measurements of postsynaptic integration in cat areas 17 and 18, we performed multi-scale assessments of the functional impact of visually driven lateral networks. Voltage-sensitive dye imaging showed that local oriented stimuli evoke an orientation-selective activity that remains confined to the cortical feedforward imprint of the stimulus. Beyond a distance of one hypercolumn, the lateral spread of cortical activity gradually lost its orientation preference approximated as an exponential with a space constant of about 1 mm. Intracellular recordings showed that this loss of orientation selectivity arises from the diversity of converging synaptic input patterns originating from outside the classical RF. In contrast, when the stimulus size was increased, we observed orientation-selective spread of activation beyond the feedforward imprint. We conclude that stimulus-induced cooperativity enhances the long-range orientation-selective spread.
Keywords: functional connectivity; horizontal propagation; imaging; intracellular recordings; lateral interaction; orientation selectivity; primary visual cortex; voltage-sensitive dye.