Investigating the human binocular visual system using multi-modal magnetic resonance imaging

Perception. 2023 Jul;52(7):441-458. doi: 10.1177/03010066231178664. Epub 2023 Jun 4.


Having two forward-facing eyes with slightly different viewpoints enables animals, including humans, to discriminate fine differences in depth (disparities), which can facilitate interaction with the world. The binocular visual system starts in the primary visual cortex because that is where information from the eyes is integrated for the first time. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is an ideal tool to non-invasively investigate this system since it can provide a range of detailed measures about structure, function, neurochemistry and connectivity of the human brain. Since binocular disparity is used for both action and object recognition, the binocular visual system is a valuable model system in neuroscience for understanding how basic sensory cues are transformed into behaviourally relevant signals. In this review, we consider how MRI has contributed to the understanding of binocular vision and depth perception in the human brain. Firstly, MRI provides the ability to image the entire brain simultaneously to compare the contribution of specific visual areas to depth perception. A large body of work using functional MRI has led to an understanding of the extensive networks of brain areas involved in depth perception, but also the fine-scale macro-organisation for binocular processing within individual visual areas. Secondly, MRI can uncover mechanistic information underlying binocular combination with the use of MR spectroscopy. This method can quantify neurotransmitters including GABA and glutamate within restricted regions of the brain, and evaluate the role of these inhibitory and excitatory neurochemicals in binocular vision. Thirdly, it is possible to measure the nature and microstructure of pathways underlying depth perception using diffusion MRI. Understanding these pathways provides insight into the importance of the connections between areas implicated in depth perception. Finally, MRI can help to understand changes in the visual system resulting from amblyopia, a neural condition where binocular vision does not develop correctly in childhood.

Keywords: amblyopia; diffusion imaging; magnetic resonance spectroscopy; retinotopic mapping; tractography; visual cortex.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Editorial

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Depth Perception*
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Vision Disparity
  • Vision, Binocular
  • Visual Cortex*
  • Visual Perception