Retinal OFF ganglion cells allow detection of quantal shadows at starlight

Johan Westö, Nataliia Martyniuk, Sanna Koskela, Tuomas Turunen, Santtu Pentikäinen, Petri Ala-Laurila*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)
46 Downloads (Pure)


Perception of light in darkness requires no more than a handful of photons, and this remarkable behavioral performance can be directly linked to a particular retinal circuit—the retinal ON pathway. However, the neural limits of shadow detection in very dim light have remained unresolved. Here, we unravel the neural mechanisms that determine the sensitivity of mice (CBA/CaJ) to light decrements at the lowest light levels by measuring signals from the most sensitive ON and OFF retinal ganglion cell types and by correlating their signals with visually guided behavior. We show that mice can detect shadows when only a few photon absorptions are missing among thousands of rods. Behavioral detection of such “quantal” shadows relies on the retinal OFF pathway and is limited by noise and loss of single-photon signals in retinal processing. Thus, in the dim-light regime, light increments and decrements are encoded separately via the ON and OFF retinal pathways, respectively.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2848-2857
JournalCurrent Biology
Issue number13
Publication statusPublished - 11 Jul 2022
MoE publication typeA1 Journal article-refereed


  • decrement
  • ganglion cells
  • OFF pathway
  • ON pathway
  • photon detection
  • retina
  • retinal circuit
  • vision
  • visual sensitivity
  • visually guided behavior


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