Can common functional gene variants affect visual discrimination in metacontrast masking?

PLoS One. 2013;8(1):e55287. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0055287. Epub 2013 Jan 24.


Mechanisms of visual perception should be robustly fast and provide veridical information about environmental objects in order to facilitate survival and successful coping. Because species-specific brain mechanisms for fast vision must have evolved under heavy pressure for efficiency, it has been held that different human individuals see the physical world in the same way and produce psychophysical functions of visual discrimination that are qualitatively the same. For many years, this assumption has been implicitly accepted in vision research studying extremely fast, basic visual processes, including studies of visual masking. However, in recent studies of metacontrast masking surprisingly robust individual differences in the qualitative aspects of subjects' performance have been found. As the basic species-specific visual functions very likely are based on universal brain mechanisms of vision, these differences probably are the outcome of variability in ontogenetic development (i.e., formation of idiosyncrasic skills of perception). Such developmental differences can be brought about by variants of genes that are differentially expressed in the course of CNS development. The objective of this study was to assess whether visual discrimination in metacontrast masking is related to three widely studied genetic polymorphisms implicated in brain function and used here as independent variables. The findings suggest no main effects of BDNF Val66Met, NRG1/rs6994992, or 5-HTTLPR polymorphisms on metacontrast performance, but several notable interactions of genetic variables with gender, stage of the sequence of experimental trials, perceptual strategies, and target/mask shape congruence were found. Thus, basic behavioral functions of fast vision may be influenced by common genetic variability. Also, when left uncontrolled, genetic factors may seriously confound variables in vision research using masking, obscure clear theoretical interpretation, lead to unexplicable inter-regional differences and create problems of replicability of formerly successful experiments.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor / genetics
  • Female
  • Genetic Variation*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Visual Perception / genetics*
  • Young Adult


  • Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor

Grant support

Our research was supported by Estonian Ministry of Science and Education through a targeted financing project SF0180027s12. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.