The visual system processes sensory inputs sequentially, perceiving coarse information before fine details. Here we study the neural basis of coarse-to-fine processing and its computational benefits in natural vision. We find that primary visual cortical neurons in awake mice respond to natural scenes in a coarse-to-fine manner, primarily driven by individual neurons rapidly shifting their spatial frequency preference from low to high over a brief response period. This shift transforms the population response in a way that counteracts the statistical regularities of natural scenes, thereby reducing redundancy and generating a more efficient neural representation. The increase in representational efficiency does not occur in either dark-reared or anesthetized mice, which show significantly attenuated coarse-to-fine spatial processing. Collectively, these results illustrate that coarse-to-fine processing is state dependent, develops postnatally via visual experience, and provides a computational advantage by generating more efficient representations of the complex spatial statistics of ethologically relevant natural scenes.


Chen H, Savier EL, DePiero VJ, Cang J.

Lack of Evidence for Stereotypical Direction Columns in the Mouse Superior Colliculus

. Journal of Neuroscience. 2021;41(3):461-473.

Neurons in the visual system can be spatially organized according to their response properties such as receptive field location and feature selectivity. For example, the visual cortex of many mammalian species contains orientation and direction columns where neurons with similar preferences are clustered. Here, we examine whether such a columnar structure exists in the mouse superior colliculus (SC), a prominent visual center for motion processing. By performing large-scale physiological recording and two-photon calcium imaging in adult male and female mice, we show that direction-selective neurons in the mouse SC are not organized into stereotypical columns as a function of their preferred directions, although clusters of similarly tuned neurons are seen in a minority of mice. Nearby neurons can prefer similar or opposite directions in a largely position-independent manner. This finding holds true regardless of animal state (anesthetized vs awake, running vs stationary), SC depth (most superficial lamina vs deeper in the SC), research technique (calcium imaging vs electrophysiology), and stimulus type (drifting gratings vs moving dots, full field vs small patch). Together, these results challenge recent reports of region-specific organizations in the mouse SC and reveal how motion direction is represented in this important visual center.

Tohmi M, Tanabe S, Cang J.

Motion Streak Neurons in the Mouse Visual Cortex

. Cell Reports. 2021;34(2):108617.

Motion streaks are smeared representation of fast-moving objects due to temporal integration. Here, we test for motion streak signals in mice with two-photon calcium imaging. For small dots moving at low speeds, neurons in primary visual cortex (V1) encode the component motion, with preferred direction along the axis perpendicular to their preferred orientation. At high speeds, V1 neurons prefer the direction along the axis parallel to their preferred orientation, as expected for encoding motion streaks. Whereas some V1 neurons (∼20%) display a switch of preferred motion axis with increasing speed, others (>40%) respond specifically to high speeds at the parallel axis. Motion streak neurons are also seen in higher visual lateromedial (LM), anterolateral (AL), and rostrolateral (RL) areas, but with higher transition speeds, and many still prefer the perpendicular axis even with fast motion. Our results thus indicate that diverse motion encoding exists in mouse visual cortex, with intriguing differences among visual areas.

The superior colliculus is a conserved sensorimotor structure that integrates visual and other sensory information to drive reflexive behaviors. Although the evidence for this is strong and compelling, a number of experiments reveal a role for the superior colliculus in behaviors usually associated with the cerebral cortex, such as attention and decision-making. Indeed, in addition to collicular outputs targeting brainstem regions controlling movements, the superior colliculus also has ascending projections linking it to forebrain structures including the basal ganglia and amygdala, highlighting the fact that the superior colliculus, with its vast inputs and outputs, can influence processing throughout the neuraxis. Today, modern molecular and genetic methods combined with sophisticated behavioral assessments have the potential to make significant breakthroughs in our understanding of the evolution and conservation of neuronal cell types and circuits in the superior colliculus that give rise to simple and complex behaviors.


In mouse visual cortex, right after eye opening binocular cells have different preferred orientations for input from the two eyes. With normal visual experience during a critical period, these preferred orientations evolve and eventually become well matched. To gain insight into the matching process, we developed a computational model of a cortical cell receiving orientation selective inputs via plastic synapses. The model captures the experimentally observed matching of the preferred orientations, the dependence of matching on ocular dominance of the cell, and the relationship between the degree of matching and the resulting monocular orientation selectivity. Moreover, our model puts forward testable predictions: 1) The matching speed increases with initial ocular dominance. 2) While the matching improves more slowly for cells that are more orientation selective, the selectivity increases faster for better matched cells during the matching process. This suggests that matching drives orientation selectivity but not vice versa. 3) There are two main routes to matching: the preferred orientations either drift toward each other or one of the orientations switches suddenly. The latter occurs for cells with large initial mismatch and can render the cells monocular. We expect that these results provide insight more generally into the development of neuronal systems that integrate inputs from multiple sources, including different sensory modalities.NEW & NOTEWORTHY Animals gather information through multiple modalities (vision, audition, touch, etc.). These information streams have to be merged coherently to provide a meaningful representation of the world. Thus, for neurons in visual cortex V1, the orientation selectivities for inputs from the two eyes have to match to enable binocular vision. We analyze the postnatal process underlying this matching using computational modeling. It captures recent experimental results and reveals interdependence between matching, ocular dominance, and orientation selectivity.


Visual responses are extensively shaped by internal factors. This effect is drastic in the primary visual cortex (V1), where locomotion profoundly increases visually-evoked responses. Here we investigate whether a similar effect exists in another major visual structure, the superior colliculus (SC). By performing 2-photon calcium imaging of head-fixed male and female mice running on a treadmill, we find that only a minority of neurons in the most superficial lamina of the SC display significant changes during locomotion. This modulation includes both increase and decrease in response amplitude and is similar between excitatory and inhibitory neurons. The overall change in the SC is small, whereas V1 responses almost double during locomotion. Additionally, SC neurons display lower response variability and less spontaneous activity than V1 neurons. Together, these experiments indicate that locomotion-dependent modulation is not a widespread phenomenon in the early visual system and that SC and V1 use different strategies to encode visual information.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENTVisual information captured by the retina is processed in parallel through two major pathways, one reaching the primary visual cortex through the thalamus, and the other projecting to the superior colliculus. The two pathways then merge in the higher areas of the visual cortex. Recent studies have shown that behavioral state such as locomotion is an essential component of vision and can strongly affect visual responses in the thalamocortical pathway. Here we demonstrate that neurons in the mouse superior colliculus and primary visual cortex display striking differences in their modulation by locomotion, as well as in response variability and spontaneous activity. Our results reveal an important "division of labor" in visual processing between these two evolutionarily distinct structures.


Cang J, Savier E, Barchini J, Liu X. Visual Function, Organization, and Development of the Mouse Superior Colliculus. Annu Rev Vis Sci. . 2018;4:239-262.
The superior colliculus (SC) is the most prominent visual center in mice. Studies over the past decade have greatly advanced our understanding of the function, organization, and development of the mouse SC, which has rapidly become a popular model in vision research. These studies have described the diverse and cell-type-specific visual response properties in the mouse SC, revealed their laminar and topographic organizations, and linked the mouse SC and downstream pathways with visually guided behaviors. Here, we summarize these findings, compare them with the rich literature of SC studies in other species, and highlight important gaps and exciting future directions. Given its clear importance in mouse vision and the available modern neuroscience tools, the mouse SC holds great promise for understanding the cellular, circuit, and developmental mechanisms that underlie visual processing, sensorimotor transformation, and, ultimately, behavior.