In a nutshell: Our ability to respond quickly to imminent physical danger could be due to a small group of brain cells known as K-cells.

View Paper Abstract

Your brain makes sense of what you see by processing signals that are sent from the retina. The first stop on that journey is a relay centre called the lateral geniculate nucleus (LGN): a pea-sized collection of one million nerve cells, tucked deep inside the brain.

The LGN is made up of layers of different cell types: magnocellular cells (M-cells), parvocellular cells (P-cells) and koniocellular cells (K-cells). M-cells help us perceive movement and depth, while P-cells are involved in sharp vision. Less is known about K-cells. Although they have been implicated in colour vision and blindsight – the ability of blind individuals to respond to visual stimuli without realising they can see – their functions in the LGN weren’t clear.

Brain Function CoE researcher Calvin Eiber, a postdoctoral fellow in chief investigator Paul Martin’s lab, wanted to investigate K-cells in more detail. He and his colleagues showed marmoset monkeys different visual stimuli – moving or stationary, coloured or black and white – and then studied how single K-cells in the LGN responded.

The researchers found that one subset of K-cells responds very rapidly to any flashing or moving stimulus. The simple visual system of animals such as rats and mice is packed with this kind of K-cell to help them escape quickly from predators like cats. The team’s discovery of the same kind of K-cell in the marmoset LGN suggests that these cells are involved in guiding similar rapid responses in humans and other primates.

Based on these observations, the researchers believe that K-cells may help you process visual information quickly and thus respond more rapidly to nearby threats – perhaps even saving your life.

Next steps:
The team’s next goal is to discover the connections between different subgroups of K-cells and areas of the brain that regulate attention.

Eiber, C. D., Rahman, A. S., Pietersen, A. N. J., Zeater, N., Dreher, B., Solomon, S. G., & Martin, P. R. (2018). Receptive field properties of koniocellular on/off neurons in the lateral geniculate nucleus of marmoset monkeys. Journal of Neuroscience. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1679-18.2018

Republish this article:

We believe in sharing knowledge. We use a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which allows unrestricted use of this content, subject only to appropriate attribution. So please use this article as is, or edit it to fit your purposes. Referrals, mentions and links are appreciated.