Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series B. Biological Sciences

    Of the many possible functions of the macaque monkey primary visual cortex (striate cortex, area 17) two are now fairly well understood. First, the incoming information from the lateral geniculate bodies is rearranged so that most cells in the striate cortex respond to specifically oriented line segments, and, second, information originating from the two eyes converges upon single cells. The rearrangement and convergence do not take place immediately, however: in layer IVc, where the bulk of the afferents terminate, virtually all cells have fields with circular symmetry and are strictly monocular, driven from the left eye or from the right, but not both; at subsequent stages, in layers above and below IVc, most cells show orientation specificity, and about half are binocular. In a binocular cell the receptive fields in the two eyes are on corresponding regions in the two retinas and are identical in structure, but one eye is usually more effective than the other in influencing the cell; all shades of ocular dominance are seen. These two functions are strongly reflected in the architecture of the cortex, in that cells with common physiological properties are grouped together in vertically organized systems of columns. In an ocular dominance column all cells respond preferentially to the same eye. By four independent anatomical methods it has been shown that these columns have the form of vertically disposed alternating left-eye and right-eye slabs, which in horizontal section form alternating stripes about 400 μm thick, with occasional bifurcations and blind endings. Cells of like orientation specificity are known from physiological recordings to be similarly grouped in much narrower vertical sheeet-like aggregations, stacked in orderly sequences so that on traversing the cortex tangentially one normally encounters a succession of small shifts in orientation, clockwise or counterclockwise; a 1 mm traverse is usually accompanied by one or several full rotations through 180°, broken at times by reversals in direction of rotation and occasionally by large abrupt shifts. A full complement of columns, of either type, left-plus-right eye or a complete 180° sequence, is termed a hypercolumn. Columns (and hence hypercolumns) have roughly the same width throughout the binocular part of the cortex. The two independent systems of hypercolumns are engrafted upon the well known topographic representation of the visual field. The receptive fields mapped in a vertical penetration through cortex show a scatter in position roughly equal to the average size of the fields themselves, and the area thus covered, the aggregate receptive field, increases with distance from the fovea. A parallel increase is seen in reciprocal magnification (the number of degrees of visual field corresponding to 1 mm of cortex). Over most or all of the striate cortex a movement of 1-2 mm, traversing several hypercolumns, is accompanied by a movement through the visual field about equal in size to the local aggregate receptive field. Thus any 1-2 mm block of cortex contains roughly the machinery needed to subserve an aggregate receptive field. In the cortex the fall-off in detail with which the visual field is analysed, as one moves out from the foveal area, is accompanied not by a reduction in thickness of layers, as is found in the retina, but by a reduction in the area of cortex (and hence the number of columnar units) devoted to a given amount of visual field: unlike the retina, the striate cortex is virtually uniform morphologically but varies in magnification. In most respects the above description fits the newborn monkey just as well as the adult, suggesting that area 17 is largely genetically programmed. The ocular dominance columns, however, are not fully developed at birth, since the geniculate terminals belonging to one eye occupy layer IVc throughout its length, segregating out into separate columns only after about the first 6 weeks, whether or not the animal has visual experience. If one eye is sutured closed during this early period the columns belonging to that eye become shrunken and their companions correspondingly expanded. This would seem to be at least in part the result of interference with normal maturation, though sprouting and retraction of axon terminals are not excluded.


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