Neural compensation for the eye’s optical aberrations

Journal of Vision
Pablo Artal, Li Chen, Enrique J. Fernández, Ben Singer, Silvestre Manzanera, David R. Williams

A fundamental problem facing sensory systems is to recover useful information about the external world from signals that are corrupted by the sensory process itself. Retinal images in the human eye are affected by optical aberrations that cannot be corrected with ordinary spectacles or contact lenses, and the specific pattern of these aberrations is different in every eye. Though these aberrations always blur the retinal image, our subjective impression is that the visual world is sharp and clear, suggesting that the brain might compensate for their subjective influence. The recent introduction of adaptive optics to control the eye’s aberrations now makes it possible to directly test this idea. If the brain compensates for the eye’s aberrations, vision should be clearest with the eye’s own aberrations rather than with unfamiliar ones. We asked subjects to view a stimulus through an adaptive optics system that either recreated their own aberrations or a rotated version of them. For all five subjects tested, the stimulus seen with the subject’s own aberrations was always sharper than when seen through the rotated version. This supports the hypothesis that the neural visual system is adapted to the eye’s aberrations, thereby removing somehow the effects of blur generated by the sensory apparatus from visual experience. This result could have important implications for methods to correct higher order aberrations with customized refractive surgery because some benefits of optimizing the correction optically might be undone by the nervous system’s compensation for the old aberrations.