Summary and Keywords
Visual processing begins in the retina—a thin, multilayered neuronal tissue lining the back of the vertebrate eye. The retina does not merely read out the constant stream of photons impinging on its dense array of photoreceptor cells. Instead it performs a first, extensive analysis of the visual scene, while constantly adapting its sensitivity range to the input statistics, such as the brightness or contrast distribution. The functional organization of the retina abides to several key organizational principles. These include overlapping and repeating instances of both divergence and convergence, constant and dynamic range-adjustments, and (perhaps most importantly) decomposition of image information into parallel channels. This is often referred to as “parallel processing.” To support this, the retina features a large diversity of neurons organized in functionally overlapping microcircuits that typically uniformly sample the retinal surface in a regular mosaic. Ultimately, each circuit drives spike trains in the retina’s output neurons, the retinal ganglion cells. Their axons form the optic nerve to convey multiple, distinctive, and often already heavily processed views of the world to higher visual centers in the brain.
From an experimental point of view, the retina is a neuroscientist’s dream. While part of the central nervous system, the retina is largely self-contained, and depending on the species, it receives little feedback from downstream stages. This means that the tissue can be disconnected from the rest of the brain and studied in a dish for many hours without losing its functional integrity, all while retaining excellent experimental control over the exclusive natural network input: the visual stimulus. Once removed from the eyecup, the retina can be flattened, thus its neurons are easily accessed optically or using visually guided electrodes. Retinal tiling means that function studied at any one place can usually be considered representative for the entire tissue. At the same time, species-dependent specializations offer the opportunity to study circuits adapted to different visual tasks: for example, in case of our fovea, high-acuity vision. Taken together, today the retina is amongst the best understood complex neuronal tissues of the vertebrate brain.
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