Orientation tuning is a canonical neuronal response property of six-layer visual cortex that is encoded in pinwheel structures with center orientation singularities. Optical imaging of intrinsic signals enables us to map these surface two-dimensional (2D) structures, whereas lack of appropriate techniques has not allowed us to visualize depth structures of orientation coding. In the present study, we performed functional optical coherence tomography (fOCT), a technique capable of acquiring a 3D map of the intrinsic signals, to study the topology of orientation coding inside the cat visual cortex. With this technique, for the first time, we visualized columnar assemblies in orientation coding that had been predicted from electrophysiological recordings. In addition, we found that the columnar structures were largely distorted around pinwheel centers: center singularities were not rigid straight lines running perpendicularly to the cortical surface but formed twisted string-like structures inside the cortex that turned and extended horizontally through the cortex. Looping singularities were observed with their respective termini accessing the same cortical surface via clockwise and counterclockwise orientation pinwheels. These results suggest that a 3D topology of orientation coding cannot be fully anticipated from 2D surface measurements. Moreover, the findings demonstrate the utility of fOCT as an in vivo mesoscale imaging method for mapping functional response properties of cortex in the depth axis. NEW & NOTEWORTHY We used functional optical coherence tomography (fOCT) to visualize three-dimensional structure of the orientation columns with millimeter range and micrometer spatial resolution. We validated vertically elongated columnar structure in iso-orientation domains. The columnar structure was distorted around pinwheel centers. An orientation singularity formed a string with tortuous trajectories inside the cortex and connected clockwise and counterclockwise pinwheel centers in the surface orientation map. The results were confirmed by comparisons with conventional optical imaging and electrophysiological recordings.
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