In a nutshell: Melanopsin-containing ganglion cells, which send messages to the brain in response to ambient light, might also be involved in central vision.

View Paper Abstract

Everybody knows that we need our eyes to see. But did you know that our eyes also help us to get out of bed in the morning?

Visual information travels from the retina to the brain via nerve cells called ganglion cells. A tiny subset of these cells – about 5000 – contain a light-sensitive protein called melanopsin. When daylight penetrates our eyelids in the early morning, melanopsin-containing ganglion cells send messages to our brain to reset our body clock.

Although research has revealed useful information about these light-sensitive cells in rodents and non-human primates, little was known about them in humans.

Graduate student Subha Nasir Ahmad from the University of Sydney, together with Brain Function CoE chief investigators Ulrike Grünert and Paul Martin and research fellow Sammy Lee studied the density and distribution of melanopsin-containing ganglion cells in human retina.

They found that these cells are present throughout the retina, but are concentrated near the fovea – the part of the eye responsible for sharp vision. They also found that the cells receive information from photoreceptors and thus – like other ganglion cells – might play a role in visual processing.

Next steps:
The team hopes to learn more about the evolutionary history of these cells by studying their molecular properties.

Nasir-Ahmad S, Lee, S.C.S., Martin, P.R, & Grünert, U. (2017). Melanopsin-expressing ganglion cells in human retina: Morphology, distribution, and synaptic connections. The Journal of Comparative Neurology, doi: 10.1002/cne.24176

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