Natural versus synthetic stimuli for estimating receptive field models: a comparison of predictive robustness

J Neurosci. 2012 Feb 1;32(5):1560-76. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4661-12.2012.


An ultimate goal of visual neuroscience is to understand the neural encoding of complex, everyday scenes. Yet most of our knowledge of neuronal receptive fields has come from studies using simple artificial stimuli (e.g., bars, gratings) that may fail to reveal the full nature of a neuron's actual response properties. Our goal was to compare the utility of artificial and natural stimuli for estimating receptive field (RF) models. Using extracellular recordings from simple type cells in cat A18, we acquired responses to three types of broadband stimulus ensembles: two widely used artificial patterns (white noise and short bars), and natural images. We used a primary dataset to estimate the spatiotemporal receptive field (STRF) with two hold-back datasets for regularization and validation. STRFs were estimated using an iterative regression algorithm with regularization and subsequently fit with a zero-memory nonlinearity. Each RF model (STRF and zero-memory nonlinearity) was then used in simulations to predict responses to the same stimulus type used to estimate it, as well as to other broadband stimuli and sinewave gratings. White noise stimuli often elicited poor responses leading to noisy RF estimates, while short bars and natural image stimuli were more successful in driving A18 neurons and producing clear RF estimates with strong predictive ability. Natural image-derived RF models were the most robust at predicting responses to other broadband stimulus ensembles that were not used in their estimation and also provided good predictions of tuning curves for sinewave gratings.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cats
  • Models, Neurological*
  • Photic Stimulation / methods*
  • Predictive Value of Tests
  • Visual Cortex / physiology*
  • Visual Fields / physiology*