Published online by Cambridge University Press: 02 June 2009
Relay cells of the lateral geniculate nucleus respond to visual stimuli in one of two modes: burst and tonic. The burst mode depends on the activation of a voltage-dependent, Ca2+ conductance underlying the low threshold spike. This conductance is inactivated at depolarized membrane potentials, but when activated from hyperpolarized levels, it leads to a large, triangular, nearly all-or-none depolarization. Typically, riding its crest is a high-frequency barrage of action potentials. Low threshold spikes thus provide a nonlinear amplification allowing hyperpolarized relay neurons to respond to depolarizing inputs, including retinal EPSPs. In contrast, the tonic mode is characterized by a steady stream of unitary action potentials that more linearly reflects the visual stimulus. In this study, we tested possible differences in detection between response modes of 103 geniculate neurons by constructing receiver operating characteristic (ROC) curves for responses to visual stimuli (drifting sine-wave gratings and flashing spots). Detectability was determined from the ROC curves by computing the area under each curve, known as the ROC area. Most cells switched between modes during recording, evidently due to small shifts in membrane potential that affected the activation state of the low threshold spike. We found that the more often a cell responded in burst mode, the larger its ROC area. This was true for responses to optimal and nonoptimal visual stimuli, the latter including nonoptimal spatial frequencies and low stimulus contrasts. The larger ROC areas associated with burst mode were due to a reduced spontaneous activity and roughly equivalent level of visually evoked response when compared to tonic mode. We performed a within-cell analysis on a subset of 22 cells that switched modes during recording. Every cell, whether tested with a low contrast or high contrast visual stimulus exhibited a larger ROC area during its burst response mode than during its tonic mode. We conclude that burst responses better support signal detection than do tonic responses. Thus, burst responses, while less linear and perhaps less useful in providing a detailed analysis of visual stimuli, improve target detection. The tonic mode, with its more linear response, seems better suited for signal analysis rather than signal detection.