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Visual behaviour mediated by retinal projections directed to the auditory pathway


An unresolved issue in cortical development concerns the relative contributions of intrinsic and extrinsic factors to the functional specification of different cortical areas1,2,3,4. Ferrets in which retinal projections are redirected neonatally to the auditory thalamus5 have visually responsive cells in auditory thalamus and cortex, form a retinotopic map in auditory cortex and have visual receptive field properties in auditory cortex that are typical of cells in visual cortex5,6,7,8. Here we report that this cross-modal projection and its representation in auditory cortex can mediate visual behaviour. When light stimuli are presented in the portion of the visual field that is ‘seen’ only by this projection, ‘rewired’ ferrets respond as though they perceive the stimuli to be visual rather than auditory. Thus the perceptual modality of a neocortical region is instructed to a significant extent by its extrinsic inputs. In addition, gratings of different spatial frequencies can be discriminated by the rewired pathway, although the grating acuity is lower than that of the normal visual pathway.

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Figure 1: The behavioural role of retinal projections routed to the auditory pathway.
Figure 2: Responses of rewired and normal ferrets to sound and light stimuli.
Figure 3: Grating acuity in rewired and normal ferrets.


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We thank C. Waite for help with figures and data analysis; R. P. Dolan for help in designing the apparatus for experiment 1 and software; M. Ter-Minassian for helping with ferret training; R. Held and A. Roe for comments and suggestions throughout experiment 1; R. Marini for help with the surgical procedures and with animal care; R. Held, J. Rauschecker, C. Hohnke, A. Lyckman and J. Schummers for comments on the manuscript; and members of the Sur laboratory for advice and comments. We are particularly grateful to W. Singer for help and support during experiment 2. Supported by a fellowship from the Human Frontiers Science program (L.v.M.), a fellowship from the National Eye Institute (S.L.P.) and grants from the NIH (M.S.).

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von Melchner, L., Pallas, S. & Sur, M. Visual behaviour mediated by retinal projections directed to the auditory pathway. Nature 404, 871–876 (2000).

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