Amblyopia Affects the ON Visual Pathway More than the OFF

J Neurosci. 2019 Aug 7;39(32):6276-6290. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3215-18.2019. Epub 2019 Jun 12.


Visual information reaches the cerebral cortex through parallel ON and OFF pathways that signal the presence of light and dark stimuli in visual scenes. We have previously demonstrated that optical blur reduces visual salience more for light than dark stimuli because it removes the high spatial frequencies from the stimulus, and low spatial frequencies drive weaker ON than OFF cortical responses. Therefore, we hypothesized that sustained optical blur during brain development should weaken ON cortical pathways more than OFF, increasing the dominance of darks in visual perception. Here we provide support for this hypothesis in humans with anisometropic amblyopia who suffered sustained optical blur early after birth in one of the eyes. In addition, we show that the dark dominance in visual perception also increases in strabismic amblyopes that have their vision to high spatial frequencies reduced by mechanisms not associated with optical blur. Together, we show that amblyopia increases visual dark dominance by 3-10 times and that the increase in dark dominance is strongly correlated with amblyopia severity. These results can be replicated with a computational model that uses greater luminance/response saturation in ON than OFF pathways and, as a consequence, reduces more ON than OFF cortical responses to stimuli with low spatial frequencies. We conclude that amblyopia affects the ON cortical pathway more than the OFF, a finding that could have implications for future amblyopia treatments.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Amblyopia is a loss of vision that affects 2-5% of children across the world and originates from a deficit in visual cortical circuitry. Current models assume that amblyopia affects similarly ON and OFF visual pathways, which signal light and dark features in visual scenes. Against this current belief, here we demonstrate that amblyopia affects the ON visual pathway more than the OFF, a finding that could have implications for new amblyopia treatments targeted at strengthening a weak ON visual pathway.

Keywords: plasticity; receptive field; thalamocortical; thalamus; visual cortex.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Amblyopia / physiopathology*
  • Brain / growth & development
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology
  • Darkness
  • Eye / growth & development
  • Female
  • Fixation, Ocular / physiology
  • Humans
  • Light
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neuronal Plasticity
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Psychophysics
  • Thalamus / physiology
  • Vision, Monocular / physiology
  • Visual Acuity
  • Visual Pathways / physiopathology*
  • Young Adult