The superior colliculus (SC) in the mammalian mesencephalon is involved in avoidance or escape behaviors, but little is known about the response properties of collicular neurons to an object approaching on a collision course towards the animal. The present study identified two classes of looming-sensitive neurons, rho and eta cells, in the SC of the cat, but did not find any tau cell, which has been observed in the pigeon tectofugal pathway. The looming responses were characterized by distinct firing patterns, in which the neuronal discharge steadily increased as the object was approaching, and peaked approximately at the time of collision (rho cell) or some time earlier (eta cell). The response onset time of both rho and eta cells was linearly related to the square root of the diameter/velocity ratio of looming objects; whereas for eta cells, the response peak time was linearly related to the diameter/velocity ratio. The receptive fields of these collicular cells were composed of an excitatory center and a suppressive surround, but the occurrence and development of neuronal responses to looming stimuli were independent of the receptive-field organization. Although the cell number was relatively small in the deep layers of the SC, the proportion of looming-sensitive neurons was close to that in the superficial layers. These results suggest that a population of collicular cells is involved in signaling impending collision of a looming object with the animal and the neural mechanisms underlying the collision avoidance behaviors are to some extent conservative across species from insects to mammals.

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