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In the visual system, visual receptive fields are volumes in visual space. For example, the receptive field of a single photoreceptor is a cone-shaped volume comprising all the visual directions in which light will alter the firing of that cell. Its apex is located in the center of the lens and its base essentially at infinity in visual space. Traditionally, visual receptive fields were portrayed in two dimensions (e.g., as circles, squares, or rectangles), but these are simply slices, cut along the screen on which the researcher presented the stimulus, of the volume of space to which a particular cell will respond. In the case of binocular neurons in the visual cortex, receptive fields do not extend to optical infinity. Instead, they are restricted to a certain interval of distance from the animal, or from where the eyes are fixating (see Panum's area).

The receptive field is often identified as the region of the retina where the action of light alters the firing of the neuron. In retinal ganglion cells (see below), this area of the retina would encompass all the photoreceptors, all the rods and cones from one eye that are connected to this particular ganglion cell via bipolar cells, horizontal cells, and amacrine cells. In binocular neurons in the visual cortex, it is necessary to specify the corresponding area in both retinas (one in each eye). Although these can be mapped separately in each retina by shutting one or the other eye, the full influence on the neuron's firing is revealed only when both eyes are open.

Hubel and Wiesel (e.g., Hubel, 1963) advanced the theory that receptive fields of cells at one level of the visual system are formed from input by cells at a lower level of the visual system. In this way, small, simple receptive fields could be combined to form large, complex receptive fields. Later theorists elaborated this simple, hierarchical arrangement by allowing cells at one level of the visual system to be influenced by feedback from higher levels.

Receptive fields have been mapped for all levels of the visual system from photoreceptors, to retinal ganglion cells, to lateral geniculate nucleus cells, to visual cortex cells, to extrastriate cortical cells.

Retinal ganglion cells

On center and off center retinal ganglion cells respond oppositely to light in the center and surround of their receptive fields. A strong response means high frequency firing, a weak response is firing at a low frequency, and no response means no action potential is fired.

The organization of ganglion cells' receptive fields, composed of inputs from many rods and cones, provides a way of detecting contrast, and is used for detecting objects' edges. Each receptive field is arranged into a central disk, the "centre", and a concentric ring, the "surround", each region responding oppositely to light. For example, light in the centre might increase the firing of a particular ganglion cell, whereas light in the surround would decrease the firing of that cell.

There are two types of ganglion cells: "on-center" and "off-center". An on-center cell is stimulated when the center of its receptive field is exposed to light, and is inhibited when the surround is exposed to light. Off-center cells have just the opposite reaction. Stimulation of the center of an on-center cell's receptive field produces depolarization and an increase in the firing of the ganglion cell, stimulation of the surround produces a hyperpolarization and a decrease in the firing of the cell, and stimulation of both the center and surround produces only a mild response (due to mutual inhibition of center and surround). An off-center cell is stimulated by activation of the surround and inhibited by stimulation of the center (see figure).

Photoreceptors that are part of the receptive fields of more than one ganglion cell are able to excite or inhibit postsynaptic neurons because they release the neurotransmitter glutamate at their synapses, which can act to depolarize or to hyperpolarize a cell, depending on the ion channels it opens.

When photoreceptors in the center of an on-center ganglion cell's receptive field are stimulated, they stop releasing glutamate (because photoreceptors are depolarized in the absence of light and respond to light by hyperpolarizing). At their synapses with the on-center cell, glutamate acts as an inhibitory neurotransmitter, opening channels that hyperpolarize the cell. Stopping the release of glutamate inhibits an inhibitory effect, leading to an increase in the firing of the on-centre cell.

Conversely, when photoreceptors in the surround of an on-center ganglion cell's receptive field are stimulated, although they respond by stopping the release of glutamate, at their synapses with the ganglion cell, glutamate acts as an excitatory neurotransmitter, opening channels that depolarize the cell. Stopping the release of glutamate inhibits an excitatory effect, leading to a decrease in the firing of the on-centre cell. A photoreceptor can make synapses with both on-center and off-center cells and thus has synapses in which glutamate is excitatory as well as those in which it is inhibitory.

The center-surround receptive field organization allows ganglion cells to transmit information not merely about whether photoreceptor cells are firing, but also about the differences in firing rates of cells in the center and surround. This allows them to transmit information about contrast. The size of the receptive field governs the spatial frequency of the information: small receptive fields are stimulated by high spatial frequencies, fine detail; large receptive fields are stimulated by low spatial frequencies, coarse detail. Retinal ganglion cell receptive fields convey information about discontinuities in the distribution of light falling on the retina; these often specify the edges of objects.

Lateral geniculate nucleus

Further along in the visual system, groups of ganglion cells form the receptive fields of cells in the lateral geniculate nucleus. Receptive fields are similar to those of ganglion cells, with an antagonistic center-surround system and cells that are either on- or off center.

Visual cortex

Receptive fields of cells in the visual cortex are larger and have more-complex stimulus requirements than retinal ganglion cells or lateral geniculate nucleus cells. Hubel and Wiesel (e.g., Hubel, 1963) classified receptive fields of cells in the visual cortex into simple cells, complex cells, and hypercomplex cells. Simple cell receptive fields are elongated, for example with an excitatory central oval, and an inhibitory surrounding region, or approximately rectangular, with one long side being excitatory and the other being inhibitory. Images for these receptive fields need to have a particular orientation in order to excite the cell. For complex-cell receptive fields, a correctly oriented bar of light might need to move in a particular direction in order to excite the cell. For hypercomplex receptive fields, the bar might also need to be of a particular length.

Extrastriate visual areas

In extrastriate visual areas, cells can have very large receptive fields requiring very complex images to excite the cell. For example in the inferotemporal cortex, receptive fields cross the midline of visual space and require images such as radial gratings or hands. It is also believed that in the fusiform face area, images of faces excite the cortex more than other images. This property was one of the earliest major results obtained through fMRI (Kanwisher, McDermott and Chun, 1997); the finding was confirmed later at the neuronal level (Tsao, Freiwald, Tootell and Livingstone, 2006). In a similar vein, people have looked for other category-specific areas; some recent research for example suggests the parahippocampal place area might be somewhat specialised for buildings. However, more recent research has suggested that the fusiform face area is specialised not just for faces, but also for any discrete, within-category discrimination.

See also


  • Hubel, D. H. (1963). The visual cortex of the brain. Scientific American, 209(5), 54-62.
  • Kandel E.R., Schwartz, J.H., Jessell, T.M. (2000). Principles of Neural Science, 4th ed., pp.515-520. McGraw-Hill, New York.
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