Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine estimated the bandwidth of information transmission of the human retina. It turns out that the data transfer is as fast as a regular Ethernet connection:
Using an intact retina from a guinea pig, the researchers recorded spikes of electrical impulses from ganglion cells using a miniature multi-electrode array. The investigators calculate that the human retina can transmit data at roughly 10 million bits per second. By comparison, an Ethernet can transmit information between computers at speeds of 10 to 100 million bits per second…
The guinea pig retina was placed in a dish and then presented with movies containing four types of biological motion, for example a salamander swimming in a tank to represent an object-motion stimulus. After recording electrical spikes on an array of electrodes, the researchers classified each cell into one of two broad classes: “brisk” or “sluggish,” so named because of their speed.
The researchers found that the electrical spike patterns differed between cell types. For example, the larger, brisk cells fired many spikes per second and their response was highly reproducible. In contrast, the smaller, sluggish cells fired fewer spikes per second and their responses were less reproducible.
But, what’s the relationship between these spikes and information being sent? “It’s the combinations and patterns of spikes that are sending the information. The patterns have various meanings,” says co-author Vijay Balasubramanian, PhD, Professor of Physics at Penn. “We quantify the patterns and work out how much information they convey, measured in bits per second.”
Calculating the proportions of each cell type in the retina, the team estimated that about 100,000 guinea pig ganglion cells transmit about 875,000 bits of information per second. Because sluggish cells are more numerous, they account for most of the information. With about 1,000,000 ganglion cells, the human retina would transmit data at roughly the rate of an Ethernet connection, or 10 million bits per second.