High Contrast Allows the Retina to Compute More Than Just Contrast

Front Cell Neurosci. 2021 Jan 15;14:595193. doi: 10.3389/fncel.2020.595193. eCollection 2020.

Abstract

The goal of sensory processing is to represent the environment of an animal. All sensory systems share a similar constraint: they need to encode a wide range of stimulus magnitudes within their narrow neuronal response range. The most efficient way, exploited by even the simplest nervous systems, is to encode relative changes in stimulus magnitude rather than the absolute magnitudes. For instance, the retina encodes contrast, which are the variations of light intensity occurring in time and in space. From this perspective, it is easy to understand why the bright plumage of a moving bird gains a lot of attention, while an octopus remains motionless and mimics its surroundings for concealment. Stronger contrasts simply cause stronger visual signals. However, the gains in retinal performance associated with higher contrast are far more than what can be attributed to just a trivial linear increase in signal strength. Here we discuss how this improvement in performance is reflected throughout different parts of the neural circuitry, within its neural code and how high contrast activates many non-linear mechanisms to unlock several sophisticated retinal computations that are virtually impossible in low contrast conditions.

Keywords: adaptation; contrast; efficient coding; metabolic efficiency; non-linear computations; retina; sensitization.