Review Article | Published:

The machinery of colour vision

Nature Reviews Neuroscience volume 8, pages 276286 (2007) | Download Citation

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Abstract

Some fundamental principles of colour vision, deduced from perceptual studies, have been understood for a long time. Physiological studies have confirmed the existence of three classes of cone photoreceptors, and of colour-opponent neurons that compare the signals from cones, but modern work has drawn attention to unexpected complexities of early organization: the proportions of cones of different types vary widely among individuals, without great effect on colour vision; the arrangement of different types of cones in the mosaic seems to be random, making it hard to optimize the connections to colour-opponent mechanisms; and new forms of colour-opponent mechanisms have recently been discovered. At a higher level, in the primary visual cortex, recent studies have revealed a simpler organization than had earlier been supposed, and in some respects have made it easier to reconcile physiological and perceptual findings.

Key points

  • Normal human colour vision depends on three types of cone photoreceptors (short-, medium- and long-wavelength sensitive — S, M and L) that have different but overlapping spectral sensitivities.

  • Genes that code for the photosensitive pigments in L- and M-cones are juxtaposed on the X-chromosome, and are vulnerable to alteration or loss, resulting in impaired colour vision, particularly in men.

  • S-cones constitute 5–10% of the total number of cones; proportions of L- and M-cones vary widely among individuals, although L-cones generally predominate. Cones of the different types are randomly distributed in the mosaic, and large clusters of L- or M-cones are common.

  • Signals from different types of cones are combined in the retina to form cone-opponent pathways that project to the cortex, one opposing L- and M-cone signals, and others carrying strong S-cone signals variably opposed by L- and M-cone signals.

  • Signals regarding colour are substantially transformed on entry to the primary visual cortex, where most neurons respond weakly or not at all to pure colour variation. Neurons that respond well to colour variation have distinctive receptive fields that lack a spatially antagonistic organization.

  • The detection of contour and texture in coloured surfaces requires a receptive field that contains spatially distinct regions which are chromatically opponent. Neurons with such 'double-opponent' receptive fields are seldom found in the primary visual cortex, and might be more common in higher cortical areas.

  • Although neurons that respond well to coloured stimuli are found in multiple visual cortical areas, there is at present little evidence for a pathway that is specialized for the transmission of information about colour.

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Acknowledgements

We thank N. Dhruv, J. Forte, J. Krauskopf, J. Peirce and C. Tailby for help in experiments and analysis, and for many discussions, over several years, at the Center for Neural Science, New York University, USA. We are grateful to H. Hofer and D. Williams for providing the mosaics of Figure 1; N. Gilroy, E. Weston and A. White also commented on the figures. Supporting grants were made to S.G.S. from the National Institutes of Health, and the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council.

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Affiliations

  1. Disciplines of Physiology, Anatomy and Histology, School of Medical Sciences and Bosch Institute, Anderson-Stuart Building F13, The University of Sydney, New South Wales 2006, Australia.

    • Samuel G. Solomon
  2. Center for Visual Science and Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, University of Rochester, New York 14627, USA.

    • Peter Lennie

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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Peter Lennie.

Glossary

Opsin

A G protein membrane-bound receptor usually found in rod and cone photoreceptors that initiates phototransduction. Its spectral sensitivity depends on the sequence of amino acids.

Chromophore

A molecule, or part of one, that changes conformation upon absorbing light, inducing a conformational change in the opsin bound to it and thereby triggering phototransduction.

Crossing over

During meiosis, two like-chromosomes can both break; each can reconnect with the fragment from the other, exchanging genes or parts of genes in the process.

Deuteranomaly

Small deviations of colour vision from the normal observer (often only revealed in tasks requiring fine discriminations) brought about by mutations that shift the spectral sensitivity of the M-cone opsin.

Protanomaly

Small deviations of colour vision from the normal observer (often only revealed in tasks requiring fine discriminations) brought about by mutations that shift the spectral sensitivity of the L-cone opsin.

Ganzfelds

Formless fields of light, and ineffective stimuli for ganglion cells driven by photoreceptors.

Receptive fields

The region of visual space (or, equivalently, an area on the retinal surface) where presentation of an appropriate pattern of light causes changes in the activity of a neuron.

Contrast adaptation

The change in sensitivity (of human perception, or of individual neurons) to stimulus contrast that results from prolonged exposure to modulation of a visual stimulus.

Stereopsis

The capacity to determine the distance to a surface through the comparison of the disparate images formed in the two eyes.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn2094

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