A Population Representation of Absolute Light Intensity in the Mammalian Retina

Cell. 2017 Nov 2;171(4):865-876.e16. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2017.09.005. Epub 2017 Sep 28.


Environmental illumination spans many log units of intensity and is tracked for essential functions that include regulation of the circadian clock, arousal state, and hormone levels. Little is known about the neural representation of light intensity and how it covers the necessary range. This question became accessible with the discovery of mammalian photoreceptors that are required for intensity-driven functions, the M1 ipRGCs. The spike outputs of M1s are thought to uniformly track intensity over a wide range. We provide a different understanding: individual cells operate over a narrow range, but the population covers irradiances from moonlight to full daylight. The range of most M1s is limited by depolarization block, which is generally considered pathological but is produced intrinsically by these cells. The dynamics of block allow the population to code stimulus intensity with flexibility and efficiency. Moreover, although spikes are distorted by block, they are regularized during axonal propagation.

Keywords: action potential; adaptation; axon; depolarization block; melanopsin; photoreceptor; phototransduction; population code; retinal ganglion cell; tuning curve.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Axons / metabolism
  • Circadian Clocks
  • Electrophysiological Phenomena
  • Light
  • Light Signal Transduction
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Mice, Transgenic
  • Retina / physiology*
  • Retinal Ganglion Cells / cytology