A psychophysical correlate of contrast dependent changes in receptive field properties

Isabelle Mareschal, J. Andrew Henrie, Robert M. Shapley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Recent physiological investigations have demonstrated that a neuron's area of spatial summation can vary depending on stimulus contrast. Specifically, when the same stimulus is presented to a neuron at a low contrast, the area of summation (or neuron's receptive field) can increase by at least a factor of two, compared to that estimated with a high contrast stimulus. We sought to examine this phenomenon psychophysically by using an orientation discrimination task carried out in the presence of contextual stimuli. We have found previously that orientation discrimination thresholds for a sine-wave grating are elevated by the presence of a surround pattern of similar orientation (with an offset) and spatial frequency. However, when these patterns were separated by a gap of mean luminance exceeding roughly 1 deg, thresholds dropped to the level measured using the center pattern alone. Here, we examined the surround pattern's effect on orientation thresholds as a function of the contrast of the center and surround. We find that when both are presented at a low contrast, the detrimental influence of the surround on orientation thresholds is maintained over larger gap separations. We also find that the spatial frequency and orientation selectivity of the surround's masking effect on orientation thresholds is broader at low contrast than at high contrast. Although the results support the idea of a spatial reorganization of the mechanisms involved in the task at low contrast, these changes are insufficient, in and of themselves, to account for the data. We suggest that additional influences possibly reflecting image segmentation also affect performance.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1879-1887
Number of pages9
JournalVision research
Issue number15
StatePublished - 2002

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ophthalmology
  • Sensory Systems


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