Liu Y, Savier EL, DePiero VJ, Chen C, Schwalbe DC, Abraham-Fan R-J, Chen H, Campbell JN, Cang J.

Mapping visual functions onto molecular cell types in the mouse superior colliculus

. Neuron. 2023.
The superficial superior colliculus (sSC) carries out diverse roles in visual processing and behaviors, but how these functions are delegated among collicular neurons remains unclear. Here, using single-cell transcriptomics, we identified 28 neuron subtypes and subtype-enriched marker genes from tens of thousands of adult mouse sSC neurons. We then asked whether the sSC’s molecular subtypes are tuned to different visual stimuli. Specifically, we imaged calcium dynamics in single sSC neurons in vivo during visual stimulation and then mapped marker gene transcripts onto the same neurons ex vivo. Our results identify a molecular subtype of inhibitory neuron accounting for ∼50% of the sSC’s direction-selective cells, suggesting a genetic logic for the functional organization of the sSC. In addition, our studies provide a comprehensive molecular atlas of sSC neuron subtypes and a multimodal mapping method that will facilitate investigation of their respective functions, connectivity, and development.

The brain creates a single visual percept of the world with inputs from two eyes. This means that downstream structures must integrate information from the two eyes coherently. Not only does the brain meet this challenge effortlessly, it also uses small differences between the two eyes’ inputs, i.e., binocular disparity, to construct depth information in a perceptual process called stereopsis. Recent studies have advanced our understanding of the neural circuits underlying stereoscopic vision and its development. Here, we review these advances in the context of three binocular properties that have been most commonly studied for visual cortical neurons: ocular dominance of response magnitude, interocular matching of orientation preference, and response selectivity for binocular disparity. By focusing mostly on mouse studies, as well as recent studies using ferrets and tree shrews, we highlight unresolved controversies and significant knowledge gaps regarding the neural circuits underlying binocular vision. We note that in most ocular dominance studies, only monocular stimulations are used, which could lead to a mischaracterization of binocularity. On the other hand, much remains unknown regarding the circuit basis of interocular matching and disparity selectivity and its development. We conclude by outlining opportunities for future studies on the neural circuits and functional development of binocular integration in the early visual system.


Despite its importance, the development of higher visual areas (HVAs) at the cellular resolution remains largely unknown. Here, we conducted 2-photon calcium imaging of mouse HVAs lateromedial (LM) and anterolateral (AL) and V1 to observe developmental changes in visual response properties. HVA neurons showed selectivity for orientations and directions similar to V1 neurons at eye opening, which became sharper in the following weeks. Neurons in all areas over all developmental stages tended to respond selectively to dots moving along an axis perpendicular to their preferred orientation at slow speeds, suggesting a certain level of conventional motion coding already at eye opening. In contrast, at high speeds, many neurons responded to dots moving along the axis parallel to the preferred orientation in older animals but rarely after eye opening, indicating a lack of motion-streak coding in the earlier stage. Together, our results uncover the development of visual properties in HVAs.

Decision-making is an essential cognitive process by which we interact with the external world. However, attempts to understand the neural mechanisms of decision-making are limited by the current available animal models and the technologies that can be applied to them. Here, we build on the renewed interest in using tree shrews (Tupaia Belangeri) in vision research and provide strong support for them as a model for studying visual perceptual decision-making. Tree shrews learned very quickly to perform a two-alternative forced choice contrast discrimination task, and they exhibited differences in response time distributions depending on the reward and punishment structure of the task. Specifically, they made occasional fast guesses when incorrect responses are punished by a constant increase in the interval between trials. This behavior was suppressed when faster incorrect responses were discouraged by longer inter-trial intervals. By fitting the behavioral data with two variants of racing diffusion decision models, we found that the between-trial delay affected decision-making by modulating the drift rate of a time accumulator. Our results thus provide support for the existence of an internal process that is independent of the evidence accumulation in decision-making and lay a foundation for future mechanistic studies of perceptual decision-making using tree shrews.

Neurons in the primary visual cortex (V1) are tuned to specific disparities between the two retinal images, which form the neural substrate for stereoscopic vision. We show that V1 neurons in tree shrews, but not in mice, display highly selective responses to narrow ranges of disparity in random-dot stereograms. Surprisingly, V1 neurons in both species show similarly strong tuning to gratings of varying interocular phase differences. This stimulus-dependent dissociation of disparity tuning can be explained by a network model that combines both feedforward and recurrent connections. The features of the model connections are supported by cortical organizations specific to each species. We validate this model by identifying putative inhibitory neurons and confirming their predicted disparity tuning in both species. Together, our studies establish a foundation for using tree shrews in studying binocular vision and raise an exciting possibility of how cortical columns could be uniquely important in computing stereoscopic depth.

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.