Upon prolonged viewing of a sinusoidal grating, the visual system is selectively desensitized to the spatial frequency of the grating, while the sensitivity to other spatial frequencies remains largely unaffected. This technique, known as pattern adaptation, has been so central to the psychophysical study of the mechanisms of spatial vision that it is sometimes referred to as the "psychologist's microelectrode." While this approach implicitly assumes that the adaptation behavior of the system is diagnostic of the corresponding underlying neural mechanisms, this assumption has never been explicitly tested. We tested this assumption using adaptation bandwidth, or the range of spatial frequencies affected by adaptation, as a representative measure of adaptation. We constructed an intentionally simple neuronal ensemble model of spatial frequency processing and examined the extent to which the adaptation bandwidth at the system level reflected the bandwidth at the neuronal level. We find that the adaptation bandwidth could vary widely even when all spatial frequency tuning parameters were held constant. Conversely, different spatial frequency tuning parameters were able to elicit similar adaptation bandwidths from the neuronal ensemble. Thus, the tuning properties of the underlying units did not reliably reflect the adaptation bandwidth at the system level, and vice versa. Furthermore, depending on the noisiness of adaptation at the neural level, the same neuronal ensemble was able to produce selective or nonselective adaptation at the system level, indicating that a lack of selective adaptation at the system level cannot be taken to mean a lack of tuned mechanisms at the neural level. Together, our results indicate that pattern adaptation cannot be used to reliably estimate the tuning properties of the underlying units, and imply, more generally, that pattern adaptation is not a reliable tool for studying the neural mechanisms of pattern analysis.
ASJC Scopus subject areas