Bright lights, not-so-big pupils

December 31, 2008

A team of Johns Hopkins neuroscientists has worked out how some newly discovered light sensors in the eye detect light and communicate with the brain. The report appears online this week in Nature.

These light sensors are a small number of nerve cells in the retina that contain melanopsin molecules. Unlike conventional light-sensing cells in the retina—rods and cones—melanopsin-containing cells are not used for seeing images; instead, they monitor light levels to adjust the body's clock and control constriction of the pupils in the eye, among other functions.

"These melanopsin-containing cells are the only other known photoreceptor besides rods and cones in mammals, and the question is, 'How do they work?'" says Michael Do, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in neuroscience at Hopkins. "We want to understand some fundamental information, like their sensitivity to light and their communication to the brain."

Using mice, the team first tested the light sensitivity of these cells by flashing light at the cells and recording the electrical current generated by one cell. They found that these cells are very insensitive to light, in contrast to rods, which are very sensitive and therefore enable us to see in dim light at night, for example. According to Do, the melanopsin-containing cells are less sensitive than cones, which are responsible for our vision in daylight.

"The next question was, What makes them so insensitive to light? Perhaps each photon they capture elicits a tiny electrical signal. Then there would have to be bright light—giving lots of captured photons—for a signal large enough to influence the brain. Another possibility is that these cells capture photons poorly," says Do.

To figure this out, the team flashed dim light at the cells. The light was so dim that, on average, only a single melanopsin molecule in each cell was activated by capturing a photon. They found that each activated melanopsin molecule triggered a large electrical signal. Moreover, to their surprise, the cell transmits this single-photon signal all the way to the brain.

Yet the large signal generated by these cells seemed incongruous with their need for such bright light. "We thought maybe they need so much light because each cell might also contain very few melanopsin molecules, decreasing their ability to capture photons," says King-Wai Yau, Ph.D., a professor of neuroscience at Hopkins. When they did the calculations, the research team found that melanopsin molecules are 5,000 times sparser than other light-capturing molecules used for image-forming vision.

"It appears that these cells capture very little light. However, once captured, the light is very effective in producing a signal large enough to go straight to the brain," says Yau. "The signal is also very slow, so it is not intended for detecting very brief changes in ambient light, but slow changes over time instead."

Curious about how these cells bear on behavior, the researchers examined pupil constriction in mice that had been genetically altered to be free of rod and cone function in order to focus on activity resulting from only melanopsin-containing cells. Flashing light at mice sitting in the dark, the team measured the degree of pupil constriction. They found that, on average, roughly 500 light-activated melanopsin molecules are enough to trigger a pupil response. "But it takes a lot of light to activate 500 molecules of melanopsin," says Yau. "Thus, the pupils close maximally only in bright light."

"In terms of controlling the pupils and the body clock, it makes sense to have a sensor that responds slowly and only to large light changes," says Yau. "You wouldn't want your body to think every cloud passing through the sky is nightfall."

"These melanopsin-containing cells signal light to many different parts of the brain to drive different behaviors, from setting the circadian clock to affecting mood and movement," says Do. "I want to know how these signals are processed and whether they are abnormal in disorders like seasonal affective disorder and jetlag—this is what we hope to tackle next."

On the Web:

Source: Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions

Explore further: Microplotter system prints DNA, proteins, live cells on a range of fragile materials

Related Stories

Food toxin detector incorporates camera

September 30, 2015

Each year, about 48 million Americans are sickened by foodborne diseases, and 3,000 die, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One factor that limits widespread testing of foods for toxins that ...

In future, the internet could come through your lightbulb

September 29, 2015

The tungsten lightbulb has served well over the century or so since it was introduced, but its days are numbered now with the arrival of LED lighting, which consume a tenth of the power of incandescent bulbs and have a lifespan ...

Recommended for you

How the finch changes its tune

August 3, 2015

Like top musicians, songbirds train from a young age to weed out errors and trim variability from their songs, ultimately becoming consistent and reliable performers. But as with human musicians, even the best are not machines. ...

Machine Translates Thoughts into Speech in Real Time

December 21, 2009

( -- By implanting an electrode into the brain of a person with locked-in syndrome, scientists have demonstrated how to wirelessly transmit neural signals to a speech synthesizer. The "thought-to-speech" process ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

2 / 5 (2) Dec 31, 2008
Hm. I wonder if they're sensitive to the same visual spectrum as the rods and cones or only a part of that spectrum.
2 / 5 (2) Dec 31, 2008
Chicken melanopsin absorbs maximally at 476-484nm according to

That's pretty bluish, a little toward green. (Look up "chromaticity".)

Fwiw, SAD/jetlag devices employ blue LEDs.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.