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Independence of luminance and contrast in natural scenes and in the early visual system


The early visual system is endowed with adaptive mechanisms that rapidly adjust gain and integration time based on the local luminance (mean intensity) and contrast (standard deviation of intensity relative to the mean). Here we show that these mechanisms are matched to the statistics of the environment. First, we measured the joint distribution of luminance and contrast in patches selected from natural images and found that luminance and contrast were statistically independent of each other. This independence did not hold for artificial images with matched spectral characteristics. Second, we characterized the effects of the adaptive mechanisms in lateral geniculate nucleus (LGN), the direct recipient of retinal outputs. We found that luminance gain control had the same effect at all contrasts and that contrast gain control had the same effect at all mean luminances. Thus, the adaptive mechanisms for luminance and contrast operate independently, reflecting the very independence encountered in natural images.

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Figure 1: Luminance and contrast in a natural scene.
Figure 2: Statistics of local luminance and contrast in natural images.
Figure 3: Effect and time course of gain control mechanisms in LGN.
Figure 4: Characterizing LGN responses at various luminances and contrasts.
Figure 5: The two models used to describe LGN responses, and a measure of their performance.
Figure 6: Independence of the effects of luminance gain control and contrast gain control.
Figure 7: Summary of the effects of luminance and contrast, and predictions of the separable model.


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We thank D. Ringach for suggesting the singular value decomposition method and J. Victor for helpful comments. The study of natural images was performed in W.S.G.'s laboratory, supported by National Eye Institute grant R01EY11747. The study of physiological responses was performed in M.C.'s laboratory, supported by the James S. McDonnell Foundation 21st Century Research Award in Bridging Brain, Mind and Behavior.

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Correspondence to Matteo Carandini.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Fig. 1

Robustness of estimate of impulse response, and absence of slow contrast adaptation in cat LGN responses. (PDF 211 kb)

Supplementary Fig. 2

Measured responses and predictions of the descriptive model replotted as a function of linear frequency. (PDF 100 kb)

Supplementary Fig. 3

Independence of luminance and contrast gain control for two additional example cells. (PDF 102 kb)

Supplementary Methods (PDF 111 kb)

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Mante, V., Frazor, R., Bonin, V. et al. Independence of luminance and contrast in natural scenes and in the early visual system. Nat Neurosci 8, 1690–1697 (2005).

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