The term visual cortex refers to the primary visual cortex (also known as striate cortex or V1) and extrastriate visual cortical areas such as V2, V3, V4, and V5. The primary visual cortex is anatomically equivalent to Brodmann area 17, or BA17.
V1 transmits information to two primary pathways, called the dorsal stream and the ventral stream:
The dichotomy of the dorsal/ventral pathways (also called the "where/what" or "action/perception" streams) was first defined by Ungerleider and Mishkin and is still contentious among vision scientists and psychologists. It is probably an over-simplification of the true state of affairs in the visual cortex. It is based on the findings that visual illusions such as the Ebbinghaus illusion may distort judgements of a perceptual nature, but when the subject responds with an action, such as grasping, no distortion occurs. However, recent work suggests that both the action and perception systems are equally fooled by such illusions.
Neurons in the visual cortex fire action potentials when visual stimuli appear within their receptive field. By definition, the receptive field is the region within the entire visual field which elicits an action potential. But for any given neuron, it may respond to a subset of stimuli within its receptive field. This property is called tuning. In the earlier visual areas, neurons have simpler tuning. For example, a neuron in V1 may fire to any vertical stimulus in its receptive field. In the higher visual areas, neurons have complex tuning. For example, in the inferior temporal cortex (IT), a neuron may only fire when a certain face appears in its receptive field.
One recent discovery concerning the human V1 is that signals measured by fMRI show very large attentional modulation. This result strongly contrasts with macaque physiology research showing very small changes (or no changes) in firing associated with attentional modulation. Research with the macaque monkey is usually performed by measuring spiking activity from single neurons. The neural basis of the fMRI signal on the other hand is mostly related to post synaptic potentiation (PSP). This difference therefore does not necessarily indicate a difference between macaque and human physiology.
Other current work on V1 seeks to fully characterize its tuning properties, and to use it as a model area for the canonical cortical circuit.
Lesions to primary visual cortex usually lead to a scotoma, or hole in the visual field. Interestingly, patients with scotomas are often able to make use of visual information presented to their scotomas, despite being unable to consciously perceive it. This phenomenon, called blindsight, is widely studied by scientists interested in the neural correlate of consciousness.
The primary visual cortex is the best studied visual area in the brain. In all mammals studied, it is located in the posterior pole of the occipital cortex (the occipital cortex is responsible for processing visual stimuli). It is the simplest, earliest cortical visual area. It is highly specialized for processing information about static and moving objects and is excellent in pattern recognition.
The functionally defined primary visual cortex is approximately equivalent to the anatomically defined striate cortex. The name "striate cortex" is derived from the stria of Gennari, a distinctive stripe visible to the naked eye that represents myelinated axons from the lateral geniculate body terminating in layer 4 of the gray matter.
The primary visual cortex is divided into six functionally distinct layers, labelled 1 through 6. Layer 4, which receives most visual input from the lateral geniculate nucleus (LGN), is further divided into 4 layers, labelled 4A, 4B, 4Cα, and 4Cβ. Sublamina 4Cα receives most magnocellular input from the LGN, while layer 4Cβ receives input from parvocellular pathways.
The average number of neurons in the adult human primary visual cortex, in each hemisphere, has been estimated at around 140 million (Leuba & Kraftsik, Anatomy and Embryology, 1994).
The tuning properties of V1 neurons (what the neurons respond to) differ greatly over time. Early in time (40 ms and further) individual V1 neurons have strong tuning to a small set of stimuli. That is, the neuronal responses can discriminate small changes in visual orientations, spatial frequencies and colors. Furthermore, individual V1 neurons in human and animals with binocular vision have ocular dominance, namely tuning to one of the two eyes. In V1, and primary sensory cortex in general, neurons with similar tuning properties tend to cluster together as cortical columns. David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel proposed the classic ice-cube organization model of cortical columns for two tuning properties: ocular dominance and orientation. However, this model cannot accommodate the color, spatial frequency and many other features to which neurons are tuned. The exact organization of all these cortical columns within V1 remains a hot topic of current research.
Current consensus seems to be that early responses of V1 neurons consists of tiled sets of selective spatiotemporal filters. In the spatial domain, the functioning of V1 can be thought of as similar to many spatially local, complex Fourier transforms. Theoretically, these filters together can carry out neuronal processing of spatial frequency, orientation, motion, direction, speed (thus temporal frequency), and many other spatiotemporal features. Experiments of V1 neurons substantiate these theories, but also raise new questions.
Later in time (after 100 ms) neurons in V1 are also sensitive to the more global organisation of the scene (Lamme & Roelfsema, 2000). These response properties probably stem from recurrent processing (the influence of higher-tier cortical areas on lower-tier cortical areas) and lateral connections from pyramidal neurons (Hupe et al 1998).
The visual information relayed to V1 is not coded in terms of spatial (or optical) imagery, but rather as the local contrast. As an example, for an image comprising half side black and half side white, the divide line between black and white has strongest local contrast and is encoded, while few neurons code the brightness information (black or white per se). As information is further relayed to subsequent visual areas, it is coded as increasingly non-local frequency/phase signals. Importantly, at these early stages of cortical visual processing, spatial location of visual information is well preserved amid the local contrast encoding.
Anatomically, V2 is split into four quadrants, a dorsal and ventral representation in the left and the right hemispheres. Together these four regions provide a complete map of the visual world. Functionally, V2 has many properties in common with V1. Cells are tuned to simple properties such as orientation, spatial frequency, and color. The responses of many V2 neurons are also modulated by more complex properties, such as the orientation of illusory contours and whether the stimulus is part of the figure or the ground (Qiu and von der Heydt, 2005).
Recent research has shown that V2 cells show a small amount of attentional modulation (more than V1, less than V4), are tuned for moderately complex patterns, and may be driven by multiple orientations at different subregions within a single receptive field.
Dorsal V3 is normally considered to be part of the dorsal stream, receiving inputs from V2 and from the primary visual area and projecting to the posterior parietal cortex. It may be anatomically located in Brodmann area 19. Recent work with fMRI has suggested that area V3/V3A may play a role in the processing of global motion Other studies prefer to consider dorsal V3 as part of a larger area, named the dorsomedial area (DM), which contains a representation of the entire visual field. Neurons in area DM respond to coherent motion of large patterns covering extensive portions of the visual field (Lui and collaborators, 2006).
Ventral V3 (VP), has much weaker connections from the primary visual area, and stronger connections with the inferior temporal cortex. While earlier studies proposed that VP only contained a representation of the upper part of the visual field (above the point of fixation), more recent work indicates that this area is more extensive than previously appreciated, and like other visual areas it may contain a complete visual representation. The revised, more extensive VP is referred to as the ventrolateral posterior area (VLP) by Rosa and Tweedale.
V4 is the third cortical area in the ventral stream, receiving strong feedforward input from V2 and sending strong connections to the posterior inferotemporal cortex (PIT). It also receives direct inputs from V1, especially for central space. In addition, it has weaker connections to V5 and visual area DP (the dorsal prelunate gyrus).
V4 is the first area in the ventral stream to show strong attentional modulation. Most studies indicate that selective attention can change firing rates in V4 by about 20%. A seminal paper by Moran and Desimone characterizing these effects was the first paper to find attention effects anywhere in the visual cortex
Like V1, V4 is tuned for orientation, spatial frequency, and color. Unlike V1, V4 is tuned for object features of intermediate complexity, like simple geometric shapes, although no one has developed a full parametric description of the tuning space for V4. Visual area V4 is not tuned for complex objects such as faces, as areas in the inferotemporal cortex are.
The firing properties of V4 were first described by Semir Zeki in the late 1970s, who also named the area. Before that, V4 was known by its anatomical description, the prelunate gyrus. Originally, Zeki argued that the purpose of V4 was to process color information. Work in the early 1980s proved that V4 was as directly involved in form recognition as earlier cortical areas. This research supported the Two Streams hypothesis, first presented by Ungerleider and Mishkin in 1982.
Recent work has shown that V4 exhibits long-term plasticity, encodes stimulus salience, is gated by signals coming from the frontal eye fields, shows changes in the spatial profile of its receptive fields with attention.
MT is connected to a wide array of cortical and subcortical brain areas. Its inputs include the visual cortical areas V1, V2, and dorsal V3 (dorsomedial area), the koniocellular regions of the LGN, and the inferior pulvinar. The pattern of projections to MT changes somewhat between the representations of the foveal and peripheral visual fields, with the latter receiving inputs from areas located in the midline cortex and retrosplenial region
A standard view is that V1 provides the "most important" input to MT. Nonetheless, several studies have demonstrated that neurons in MT are capable of responding to visual information, often in a direction-selective manner, even after V1 has been destroyed or inactivated. Moreover, research by Semir Zeki and collaborators has suggested that certain types of visual information may reach MT before it even reaches V1.
MT sends its major outputs to areas located in the cortex immediately surrounding it, including areas FST, MST and V4t (middle temporal crescent). Other projections of MT target the eye movement-related areas of the frontal and parietal lobes (frontal eye field and lateral intraparietal area).
The first studies of the electrophysiological properties of neurons in MT showed that a large portion of the cells were tuned to the speed and direction of moving visual stimuli These results suggested that MT played a significant role in the processing of visual motion.
Lesion studies have also supported the role of MT in motion perception and eye movements and neuropsychological studies of a patient who could not see motion, seeing the world in a series of static "frames" instead, suggested that MT in the primate is homologous to V5 in the human.
However, since neurons in V1 are also tuned to the direction and speed of motion, these early results left open the question of precisely what MT could do that V1 could not. Much work has been carried out on this region as it appears to integrate local visual motion signals into the global motion of complex objects. For examples, lesion to the V5 lead to deficits in perceiving motion and processing of complex stimuli. It contains many neurons selective for the motion of complex visual features (line ends, corners). Microstimulation of a neuron located in the V5 affects the perception of motion. For example if one finds a neuron with preference for upward motion, and then we use an electrode to stimulate it, the monkey becomes more likely to report 'upward' motion.
There is still much controversy over the exact form of the computations carried out in area MT and some research suggests that feature motion is in fact already available at lower levels of the visual system such as V1.
MT was shown to be organized in direction columns. DeAngelis argued that MT neurons were also organized based on their tuning for binocular disparity.