Neural Processing of Visual Information and Behavioural Context

New techniques for recording signals from neurons in visual pathways while animals actively engage in visually guided behaviour are taking our understanding of neural processing in visual cortex to a new level. They show that a variety of non-visual inputs modulate the responses of visual neurons and circuits according to behavioural context. Thus the circuits that abstract form, motion and depth are taking account of whether an animal is turning, moving its head and eyes, using visual features to navigate, repeatedly encountering stimuli, learning patterns and seeking rewards. These interactions could well play important roles in vision by increasing efficiency, by helping to align neural representations of visual space with the environment when an animal moves and navigates, and by increasing the efficacy of recognition and learning. Demonstrating these roles is challenging for several reasons. Cortical circuits are complicated, the mechanisms used to modulate circuits and their sites of action have not been resolved, and the effects of these mechanisms on behaviour are difficult to determine, partly because we lack the detailed descriptions of visually guided behaviour needed to identify effects.

This meeting addressed these challenges by bringing together groups that are using different methods and animal models to investigate the roles played by these non-visual interactions.

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One of the attendees described the symposium as one of the best scientific experiences they had had to date.”

Rank Prize (RP): Why was this the right time to organise a symposium on this topic?

Organiser Professor Aman Saleem (AS): It has been around a decade since work on this topic started to accelerate. With sufficient knowledge  established across the field, the time was right to explore new directions. The field has also been developing across different species in parallel, and the symposium brought together diverse researchers to help cross-pollinate ideas.

RP: What were the aims of the symposium?

AS: To bring together researchers working across diverse species, particularly flies, rodents and primates, and start a conversation. To discuss how the field is going forward and the new directions our research should focus on. To increase the sense of community among the researchers working on the topic across the UK and the world.

RP: What were some of the most exciting topics to come out of the symposium?

AS: One of the directions that has recently taken off is the improved tracking of freely moving animals and the development of methods needed to achieve this, particularly in rodents. There is growing excitement about the roles of eye movements on the processing of visual information. New discoveries have been revealing that when animals are moving freely, eye movements are able to capture many aspects of neural activity. Talks on both rodents and primates discussed this.

A second exciting topic was the effect of internal states, such as hunger and attention, in animals and how they modulate neural processing in visual systems. We also had presentations on how populations of neurons represent information distinctly in terms of their temporal dynamics and how representations drift over time.

RP: What was the most memorable part of the symposium?

AS: It is difficult to pick one!

We started the symposium with a broad discussion of diversity in our field of research: what is the current state of affairs including major barriers and what we can do to help and support diversifying the field. Everyone thoroughly enjoyed this, and it helped set the inclusive tone for the meeting. Of course, the walk (with some rain) was another great bonding activity at the symposium.  And on the final day, we dedicated more than an hour for an open discussion, where we sat around in a circle and discussed the directions that the field is going in. This helped maintain the informal and close nature of the whole symposium.

A few months later, one of the mid-career attendees described the symposium as one of the best scientific experiences they had had to date.


Professor Aman Saleem (UCL)

Professor Simon Laughlin (University of Cambridge, Rank Prize Optoelectronics Committee)