A chromatic feature detector in the retina signals visual context changes


The retina transforms patterns of light into visual feature representations supporting behaviour. These representations are distributed across various types of retinal ganglion cells (RGCs), whose spatial and temporal tuning properties have been extensively studied in many model organisms, including the mouse. However, it has been difficult to link the potentially nonlinear retinal transformations of natural visual inputs to specific ethological purposes. Here, we discover a novel selectivity to chromatic contrast in an RGC type that allows the detection of transitions of the horizon across a retinal region. We trained a convolutional neural network (CNN) model on large-scale functional recordings of RGC responses to natural mouse movies, and then used this model to search in silico for stimuli that maximally excite distinct types of RGCs. This procedure predicted centre colour-opponency in transient Suppressed-by-Contrast RGCs (tSbC), a cell type whose function is being debated. We confirmed experimentally that these cells indeed responded very selectively to Green-OFF, UV-ON contrasts, which we found to be characteristic of transitions from ground to sky in the visual scene, as might be elicited by head- or eye-movements across the horizon. Because tSbCs reliably detected these transitions, we suggest a role for this RGC type in providing contextual information (i.e. sky or ground) necessary for the selection of appropriate behavioural responses to other stimuli, such as looming objects. Our work showcases how a combination of experiments with natural stimuli and computational modelling allows discovering novel types of stimulus selectivity …

Matthias Bethge
Matthias Bethge
Professor for Computational Neuroscience and Machine Learning & Director of the Tübingen AI Center

Matthias Bethge is Professor for Computational Neuroscience and Machine Learning at the University of Tübingen and director of the Tübingen AI Center, a joint center between Tübingen University and MPI for Intelligent Systems that is part of the German AI strategy.