What happens to neurons in visual cortex when they are deprived of their preferred stimuli? Long-term deprivation during development, spanning weeks, reduces the number of neurons selective for the deprived orientation [1-4]. In contrast, short-term deprivation in adults, for periods of seconds, can increase neural sensitivity relative to a stimulated baseline . Effects over intermediate timescales remain largely unexplored, however. Here we introduce a new method for manipulating the visual environment of adult humans and report effects of four hours of orientation-specific deprivation. Subjects wore a head-mounted video camera that fed into a laptop computer that drove a head-mounted display. Software filtered the video stream in real time, allowing subjects to interact with the world while being deprived of visual input at a specified orientation. Four hours in this environment increased sensitivity to the deprived orientation, which likely reflected an increase in responsiveness of neurons in early visual cortex. Our results help distinguish between two theories of neural adaptation: the response increase optimized the responses of individual neurons, rather than increasing the efficiency of the population code. Our method should be able to produce a wide range of environmental manipulations useful for studying many topics in perception.
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The authors thank G. Legge and P. Schrater for helpful discussions and L. Shams, M. Falconbridge, and A. Yuille for initial inspiration to build the system. This work was funded by a Digital Technology Initiative grant from the University of Minnesota Digital Technology Center and a grant from the Keck Foundation to the University of California, Los Angeles Center for Image and Vision Science.