In a nutshell: As many as 20 cell types transmit different visual information from the retina to the brain.

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Our eyes send different types of messages to our brain to signal the colour, movement and shapes of the objects that we see. This helps us to spot things in our central and peripheral vision – so we can avoid other pedestrians when crossing the road, for example, while also keeping an eye on any fast-approaching cars nearby.

The messages are transmitted by nerve cells in the retina called ganglion cells. Although researchers knew that there are different types of ganglion cells, they were missing information about the number and location of these cells in the retina, and how each type contributes to vision.

Recent research from Brain Function CoE PhD scholar Rania Masri and chief investigators Ulrike Grünert and Paul Martin from the University of Sydney along with colleagues from the National Institute of Natural Sciences in Japan, has revealed important details about the shape, location and function of many of these cells.

The team used a new method to label ganglion cells in primate retinas, and found more than 20 different types distributed throughout the retina. Their shape provided the team with clues about the specific functions of some of the cells.

Based on calculations of cell density in the retina, the team also speculate that even more ganglion cell types might await discovery.

The study is expected to help researchers better understand the visual inputs to the parts of the brain that control attention, prediction and decision – all of which are necessary to notice an oncoming car, judge its speed in relation to our own, and jump out of the way if necessary.

Next steps:
The team plans to investigate whether each type of ganglion cell sends its information to specific regions of the brain.

Masri, R.A., Percival, K.A., Koizumi, A., Martin, P.R., & Grünert, U. (2017). Survey of retinal ganglion cell morphology in marmoset. The Journal of Comparative Neurology, doi: 10.1002/cne.24157

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