Effects of contrast on discrimination: single cells and behavior

Citation Info

Skottun, B.C., Bradley, A., Sclar, G;., Ohzawa, I., and Freeman R.D. (1987)
The effects of contrast on visual orientation and spatial frequency discrimination: a comparison of single cells and behavior.
J. Neurophysiol. 57: 773-786.
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Abstract

We have compared the effects of contrast on human psychophysical orientation and spatial frequency discrimination thresholds and on the responses of individual neurons in the cat's striate cortex. Contrast has similar effects on orientation and spatial frequency discrimination: as contrast is increased above detection threshold, orientation and spatial frequency discrimination performance improves but reaches maximum levels at quite low contrasts. Further increases in contrast produce no further improvements in discrimination. We measured the effects of contrast on response amplitude, orientation and spatial frequency selectivity, and response variance of neurons in the cat's striate cortex. Orientation and spatial frequency selectivity vary little with contrast. Also, the ratio of response variance to response mean is unaffected by contrast. Although, in many cells, response amplitude increases approximately linearly with log contrast over most of the visible range, some cells show complete or partial saturation of response amplitude at medium contrasts. Therefore, some cells show a clear increase in slope of the orientation and spatial frequency tuning functions with increasing contrast, whereas in others the slopes reach maximum values at medium contrasts. Using receiver operating characteristic analysis, we estimated the minimum orientation and spatial frequency differences that can be signaled reliably as a response change by an individual cell. This analysis shows that, on average, the discrimination of orientation or spatial frequency improves with contrast at low contrasts more than at higher contrasts. Using the optimal stimulus for each cell, we estimated the contrast threshold of 48 neurons. Most cells had contrast thresholds below 5%. Thresholds were only slightly higher for nonoptimal stimuli. Therefore, increasing the contrast of sinusoidal gratings above approximately 10% will not produce large increases in the number of responding cells. The observed effects of contrast on the response characteristics of nonsaturating cortical cells do not appear consistent with the psychophysical results. Cells that reach their maximum response at low-to-medium contrasts may account for the contrast independence of psychophysical orientation and spatial frequency discrimination thresholds at medium and high contrasts.