Behavioural and physiological limits to vision in mammals.

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Human vision is exquisitely sensitive-a dark-adapted observer is capable of reliably detecting the absorption of a few quanta of light. Such sensitivity requires that the sensory receptors of the retina, rod photoreceptors, generate a reliable signal when single photons are absorbed. In addition, the retina must be able to extract this information and relay it to higher visual centres under conditions where very few rods signal single-photon responses while the majority generate only noise. Critical to signal transmission are mechanistic optimizations within rods and their dedicated retinal circuits that enhance the discriminability of single-photon responses by mitigating photoreceptor and synaptic noise. We describe behavioural experiments over the past century that have led to the appreciation of high sensitivity near absolute visual threshold. We further consider mechanisms within rod photoreceptors and dedicated rod circuits that act to extract single-photon responses from cellular noise. We highlight how these studies have shaped our understanding of brain function and point out several unresolved questions in the processing of light near the visual threshold.This article is part of the themed issue 'Vision in dim light'.





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Field, Greg D, and Alapakkam P Sampath (2017). Behavioural and physiological limits to vision in mammals. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences, 372(1717). 10.1098/rstb.2016.0072 Retrieved from

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Greg D. Field

Adjunct Associate Professor of Neurobiology

My laboratory studies how the retina processes visual scenes and transmits this information to the brain.  We use multi-electrode arrays to record the activity of hundreds of retina neurons simultaneously in conjunction with transgenic mouse lines and chemogenetics to manipulate neural circuit function. We are interested in three major areas. First, we work to understand how neurons in the retina are functionally connected. Second we are studying how light-adaptation and circadian rhythms alter visual processing in the retina. Finally, we are working to understand the mechanisms of retinal degenerative conditions and we are investigating potential treatments in animal models.

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