Learning Objectives

  • Describe the structures responsible for the special senses of vision
  • List the supporting structures around the eye and describe the structure of the eyeball
  • Describe the processes of phototransduction

Vision is the special sense of sight that is based on the transduction of light stimuli received through the eyes. The eyes are located within either orbit in the skull. The bony orbits surround the eyeballs, protecting them and anchoring the soft tissues of the eye (Figure 1). The eyelids, with lashes at their leading edges, help to protect the eye from abrasions by blocking particles that may land on the surface of the eye. The inner surface of each lid is a thin membrane known as the palpebral conjunctiva. The conjunctiva extends over the white areas of the eye (the sclera), connecting the eyelids to the eyeball. Tears are produced by the lacrimal gland, located beneath the lateral edges of the nose. Tears produced by this gland flow through the lacrimal duct to the medial corner of the eye, where the tears flow over the conjunctiva, washing away foreign particles.

This diagram shows the lateral view of the eye. The major parts are labeled.

Figure 1. The Eye in the Orbit The eye is located within the orbit and surrounded by soft tissues that protect and support its function. The orbit is surrounded by cranial bones of the skull.

Movement of the eye within the orbit is accomplished by the contraction of six extraocular muscles that originate from the bones of the orbit and insert into the surface of the eyeball (Figure 2). Four of the muscles are arranged at the cardinal points around the eye and are named for those locations. They are the superior rectusmedial rectusinferior rectus, and lateral rectus. When each of these muscles contract, the eye to moves toward the contracting muscle. For example, when the superior rectus contracts, the eye rotates to look up.


This image shows the muscles surrounding the eye. The left panel shows the lateral view, and the right panel shows the anterior view of the right eye.

Figure 2. Extraocular Muscles The extraocular muscles move the eye within the orbit.

The superior oblique originates at the posterior orbit, near the origin of the four rectus muscles. However, the tendon of the oblique muscles threads through a pulley-like piece of cartilage known as the trochlea. The tendon inserts obliquely into the superior surface of the eye. The angle of the tendon through the trochlea means that contraction of the superior oblique rotates the eye medially.

The inferior oblique muscle originates from the floor of the orbit and inserts into the inferolateral surface of the eye. When it contracts, it laterally rotates the eye, in opposition to the superior oblique. Rotation of the eye by the two oblique muscles is necessary because the eye is not perfectly aligned on the sagittal plane.

When the eye looks up or down, the eye must also rotate slightly to compensate for the superior rectus pulling at approximately a 20-degree angle, rather than straight up. The same is true for the inferior rectus, which is compensated by contraction of the inferior oblique. A seventh muscle in the orbit is the levator palpebrae superioris, which is responsible for elevating and retracting the upper eyelid, a movement that usually occurs in concert with elevation of the eye by the superior rectus (see Figure 1). The extraocular muscles are innervated by three cranial nerves. The lateral rectus, which causes abduction of the eye, is innervated by the abducens nerve. The superior oblique is innervated by the trochlear nerve. All of the other muscles are innervated by the oculomotor nerve, as is the levator palpebrae superioris. The motor nuclei of these cranial nerves connect to the brain stem, which coordinates eye movements.

The eye itself is a hollow sphere composed of three layers of tissue. The outermost layer is the fibrous tunic, which includes the white sclera and clear cornea. The sclera accounts for five sixths of the surface of the eye, most of which is not visible, though humans are unique compared with many other species in having so much of the “white of the eye” visible (Figure 3). The transparent cornea covers the anterior tip of the eye and allows light to enter the eye.

The middle layer of the eye is the vascular tunic, which is mostly composed of the choroid, ciliary body, and iris. The choroid is a layer of highly vascularized connective tissue that provides a blood supply to the eyeball. The choroid is posterior to the ciliary body, a muscular structure that is attached to the lens by zonule fibers. These two structures bend the lens, allowing it to focus light on the back of the eye. Overlaying the ciliary body, and visible in the anterior eye, is the iris—the colored part of the eye. The iris is a smooth muscle that opens or closes the pupil, which is the hole at the center of the eye that allows light to enter. The iris constricts the pupil in response to bright light and dilates the pupil in response to dim light.

The innermost layer of the eye is the neural tunic, or retina, which contains the nervous tissue responsible for photoreception. The eye is also divided into two cavities: the anterior cavity and the posterior cavity. The anterior cavity is the space between the cornea and lens, including the iris and ciliary body. It is filled with a watery fluid called the aqueous humor. The posterior cavity is the space behind the lens that extends to the posterior side of the interior eyeball, where the retina is located. The posterior cavity is filled with a more viscous fluid called the vitreous humor. The retina is composed of several layers and contains specialized cells for the initial processing of visual stimuli. The photoreceptors (rods and cones) change their membrane potential when stimulated by light energy. The change in membrane potential alters the amount of neurotransmitter that the photoreceptor cells release onto bipolar cells in the outer synaptic layer. It is the bipolar cell in the retina that connects a photoreceptor to a retinal ganglion cell (RGC) in the inner synaptic layer. There, amacrine cells additionally contribute to retinal processing before an action potential is produced by the RGC. The axons of RGCs, which lie at the innermost layer of the retina, collect at the optic disc and leave the eye as the optic nerve (see Figure 3). Because these axons pass through the retina, there are no photoreceptors at the very back of the eye, where the optic nerve begins. This creates a “blind spot” in the retina, and a corresponding blind spot in our visual field.

Note that the photoreceptors in the retina (rods and cones) are located behind the axons, RGCs, bipolar cells, and retinal blood vessels. A significant amount of light is absorbed by these structures before the light reaches the photoreceptor cells. However, at the exact center of the retina is a small area known as the fovea. At the fovea, the retina lacks the supporting cells and blood vessels, and only contains photoreceptors. Therefore, visual acuity, or the sharpness of vision, is greatest at the fovea. This is because the fovea is where the least amount of incoming light is absorbed by other retinal structures (see Figure 3).

This diagram shows the structure of the eye with the major parts labeled.

Figure 3. Structure of the Eye The sphere of the eye can be divided into anterior and posterior chambers. The wall of the eye is composed of three layers: the fibrous tunic, vascular tunic, and neural tunic. Within the neural tunic is the retina, with three layers of cells and two synaptic layers in between. The center of the retina has a small indentation known as the fovea.

As one moves in either direction from this central point of the retina, visual acuity drops significantly. In addition, each photoreceptor cell of the fovea is connected to a single RGC. Therefore, this RGC does not have to integrate inputs from multiple photoreceptors, which reduces the accuracy of visual transduction. Toward the edges of the retina, several photoreceptors converge on RGCs (through the bipolar cells) up to a ratio of 50 to 1.

The difference in visual acuity between the fovea and peripheral retina is easily evidenced by looking directly at a word in the middle of this paragraph. The visual stimulus in the middle of the field of view falls on the fovea and is in the sharpest focus. Without moving your eyes off that word, notice that words at the beginning or end of the paragraph are not in focus. The images in your peripheral vision are focused by the peripheral retina, and have vague, blurry edges and words that are not as clearly identified. As a result, a large part of the neural function of the eyes is concerned with moving the eyes and head so that important visual stimuli are centered on the fovea. Light falling on the retina causes chemical changes to pigment molecules in the photoreceptors, ultimately leading to a change in the activity of the RGCs.

Photoreceptor cells have two parts, the inner segment and the outer segment (Figure 4). The inner segment contains the nucleus and other common organelles of a cell, whereas the outer segment is a specialized region in which photoreception takes place. There are two types of photoreceptors—rods and cones—which differ in the shape of their outer segment. The rod-shaped outer segments of the rod photoreceptor contain a stack of membrane-bound discs that contain the photosensitive pigment rhodopsin. The cone-shaped outer segments of the cone photoreceptor contain their photosensitive pigments in infoldings of the cell membrane. There are three cone photopigments, called opsins, which are each sensitive to a particular wavelength of light. The wavelength of visible light determines its color. The pigments in human eyes are specialized in perceiving three different primary colors: red, green, and blue.

The top panel shows the cellular structure of the different cells in the eye. The bottom panel shows a micrograph of the cellular structure.

Figure 4. Photoreceptor (a) All photoreceptors have inner segments containing the nucleus and other important organelles and outer segments with membrane arrays containing the photosensitive opsin molecules. Rod outer segments are long columnar shapes with stacks of membrane-bound discs that contain the rhodopsin pigment. Cone outer segments are short, tapered shapes with folds of membrane in place of the discs in the rods. (b) Tissue of the retina shows a dense layer of nuclei of the rods and cones. LM × 800. (Micrograph provided by the Regents of University of Michigan Medical School © 2012)

At the molecular level, visual stimuli cause changes in the photopigment molecule that lead to changes in membrane potential of the photoreceptor cell. A single unit of light is called a photon, which is described in physics as a packet of energy with properties of both a particle and a wave. The energy of a photon is represented by its wavelength, with each wavelength of visible light corresponding to a particular color. Visible light is electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength between 380 and 720 nm. Longer wavelengths of less than 380 nm fall into the infrared range, whereas shorter wavelengths of more than 720 nm fall into the ultraviolet range. Light with a wavelength of 380 nm is blue whereas light with a wavelength of 720 nm is dark red. All other colors fall between red and blue at various points along the wavelength scale.

Opsin pigments are actually transmembrane proteins that contain a cofactor known as retinal. Retinal is a hydrocarbon molecule related to vitamin A. When a photon hits retinal, the long hydrocarbon chain of the molecule is biochemically altered. Specifically, photons cause some of the double-bonded carbons within the chain to switch from a cis to a trans conformation. This process is called photoisomerization. Before interacting with a photon, retinal’s flexible double-bonded carbons are in the cis conformation. This molecule is referred to as 11-cis-retinal. A photon interacting with the molecule causes the flexible double-bonded carbons to change to the trans– conformation, forming all-trans-retinal, which has a straight hydrocarbon chain (Figure 5).

This figure shows a rod cell on the left and then shows a magnified view of the discs in the rod cells. Further magnified images show the reaction cycle required to convert cis-retinal to trans-retinal. Chemical structures of both these molecules are shown.

Figure 5. Retinal Isomers The retinal molecule has two isomers, (a) one before a photon interacts with it and (b) one that is altered through photoisomerization.

The shape change of retinal in the photoreceptors initiates visual transduction in the retina. Activation of retinal and the opsin proteins result in activation of a G protein. The G protein changes the membrane potential of the photoreceptor cell, which then releases less neurotransmitter into the outer synaptic layer of the retina. Until the retinal molecule is changed back to the 11-cis-retinal shape, the opsin cannot respond to light energy, which is called bleaching. When a large group of photopigments is bleached, the retina will send information as if opposing visual information is being perceived. After a bright flash of light, afterimages are usually seen in negative. The photoisomerization is reversed by a series of enzymatic changes so that the retinal responds to more light energy.

This graph shows the normalized absorbance versus wavelength for different cell types in the eye.

Figure 6. Comparison of Color Sensitivity of Photopigments Comparing the peak sensitivity and absorbance spectra of the four photopigments suggests that they are most sensitive to particular wavelengths.

The opsins are sensitive to limited wavelengths of light. Rhodopsin, the photopigment in rods, is most sensitive to light at a wavelength of 498 nm. The three color opsins have peak sensitivities of 564 nm, 534 nm, and 420 nm corresponding roughly to the primary colors of red, green, and blue (Figure 6). The absorbance of rhodopsin in the rods is much more sensitive than in the cone opsins; specifically, rods are sensitive to vision in low light conditions, and cones are sensitive to brighter conditions.

In normal sunlight, rhodopsin will be constantly bleached while the cones are active. In a darkened room, there is not enough light to activate cone opsins, and vision is entirely dependent on rods. Rods are so sensitive to light that a single photon can result in an action potential from a rod’s corresponding RGC.

The three types of cone opsins, being sensitive to different wavelengths of light, provide us with color vision. By comparing the activity of the three different cones, the brain can extract color information from visual stimuli. For example, a bright blue light that has a wavelength of approximately 450 nm would activate the “red” cones minimally, the “green” cones marginally, and the “blue” cones predominantly. The relative activation of the three different cones is calculated by the brain, which perceives the color as blue. However, cones cannot react to low-intensity light, and rods do not sense the color of light. Therefore, our low-light vision is—in essence—in grayscale. In other words, in a dark room, everything appears as a shade of gray. If you think that you can see colors in the dark, it is most likely because your brain knows what color something is and is relying on that memory.

Watch this video to learn more about a transverse section through the brain that depicts the visual pathway from the eye to the occipital cortex.

The first half of the pathway is the projection from the RGCs through the optic nerve to the lateral geniculate nucleus in the thalamus on either side. This first fiber in the pathway synapses on a thalamic cell that then projects to the visual cortex in the occipital lobe where “seeing,” or visual perception, takes place. This video gives an abbreviated overview of the visual system by concentrating on the pathway from the eyes to the occipital lobe. The video makes the statement (at 0:45) that “specialized cells in the retina called ganglion cells convert the light rays into electrical signals.” What aspect of retinal processing is simplified by that statement? Explain your answer.

Sensory Nerves

Once any sensory cell transduces a stimulus into a nerve impulse, that impulse has to travel along axons to reach the CNS. In many of the special senses, the axons leaving the sensory receptors have a topographical arrangement, meaning that the location of the sensory receptor relates to the location of the axon in the nerve. For example, in the retina, axons from RGCs in the fovea are located at the center of the optic nerve, where they are surrounded by axons from the more peripheral RGCs.

Spinal Nerves

Generally, spinal nerves contain afferent axons from sensory receptors in the periphery, such as from the skin, mixed with efferent axons travelling to the muscles or other effector organs. As the spinal nerve nears the spinal cord, it splits into dorsal and ventral roots. The dorsal root contains only the axons of sensory neurons, whereas the ventral roots contain only the axons of the motor neurons. Some of the branches will synapse with local neurons in the dorsal root ganglion, posterior (dorsal) horn, or even the anterior (ventral) horn, at the level of the spinal cord where they enter. Other branches will travel a short distance up or down the spine to interact with neurons at other levels of the spinal cord. A branch may also turn into the posterior (dorsal) column of the white matter to connect with the brain. For the sake of convenience, we will use the terms ventral and dorsal in reference to structures within the spinal cord that are part of these pathways. This will help to underscore the relationships between the different components. Typically, spinal nerve systems that connect to the brain are contralateral, in that the right side of the body is connected to the left side of the brain and the left side of the body to the right side of the brain.

Cranial Nerves

Cranial nerves convey specific sensory information from the head and neck directly to the brain. For sensations below the neck, the right side of the body is connected to the left side of the brain and the left side of the body to the right side of the brain. Whereas spinal information is contralateral, cranial nerve systems are mostly ipsilateral, meaning that a cranial nerve on the right side of the head is connected to the right side of the brain. Some cranial nerves contain only sensory axons, such as the olfactory, optic, and vestibulocochlear nerves. Other cranial nerves contain both sensory and motor axons, including the trigeminal, facial, glossopharyngeal, and vagus nerves (however, the vagus nerve is not associated with the somatic nervous system). The general senses of somatosensation for the face travel through the trigeminal system.