Sensory Systems/Visual Anatomy

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Generally speaking, visual systems rely on electromagnetic (EM) waves to give an organism more information about its surroundings. This information could be regarding potential mates, dangers and sources of sustenance. Different organisms have different constituents that make up what is referred to as a visual system.

The complexity of eyes range from something as simple as an eye spot, which is nothing more than a collection of photosensitive cells, to a fully fledged camera eye. If an organism has different types of photosensitive cells, or cells sensitive to different wavelength ranges, the organism would theoretically be able to perceive colour or at the very least colour differences. Polarisation, another property of EM radiation, can be detected by some organisms, with insects and cephalopods having the highest accuracy.

Please note, in this text, the focus has been on using EM waves to see. Granted, some organisms have evolved alternative ways of obtaining sight or at the very least supplementing what they see with extra-sensory information. For example, whales or bats, which use echo-location. This may be seeing in some sense of the definition of the word, but it is not entirely correct. Additionally, vision and visual are words most often associated with EM waves in the visual wavelength range, which is normally defined as the same wavelength limits of human vision. Since some organisms detect EM waves with frequencies below and above that of humans a better definition must be made. We therefore define the visual wavelength range as wavelengths of EM between 300nm and 800nm. This may seem arbitrary to some, but selecting the wrong limits would render parts of some bird's vision as non-vision. Also, with this range of wavelengths, we have defined for example the thermal-vision of certain organisms, like for example snakes as non-vision. Therefore snakes using their pit organs, which is sensitive to EM between 5000nm and 30,000nm (IR), do not "see", but somehow "feel" from afar. Even if blind specimens have been documented targeting and attacking particular body parts.

Firstly a brief description of different types of visual system sensory organs will be elaborated on, followed by a thorough explanation of the components in human vision, the signal processing of the visual pathway in humans and finished off with an example of the perceptional outcome due to these stages.

Sensory Organs[edit]

Vision, or the ability to see depends on visual system sensory organs or eyes. There are many different constructions of eyes, ranging in complexity depending on the requirements of the organism. The different constructions have different capabilities, are sensitive to different wave-lengths and have differing degrees of acuity, also they require different processing to make sense of the input and different numbers to work optimally. The ability to detect and decipher EM has proved to be a valuable asset to most forms of life, leading to an increased chance of survival for organisms that utilise it. In environments without sufficient light, or complete lack of it, lifeforms have no added advantage of vision, which ultimately has resulted in atrophy of visual sensory organs with subsequent increased reliance on other senses (e.g. some cave dwelling animals, bats etc.). Interestingly enough, it appears that visual sensory organs are tuned to the optical window, which is defined as the EM wavelengths (between 300nm and 1100nm) that pass through the atmosphere reaching to the ground. This is shown in the figure below. You may notice that there exists other "windows", an IR window, which explains to some extent the thermal-"vision" of snakes, and a radiofrequency (RF) window, of which no known lifeforms are able to detect.

Atmospheric electromagnetic opacity.svg

Through time evolution has yielded many eye constructions, and some of them have evolved multiple times, yielding similarities for organisms that have similar niches. There is one underlying aspect that is essentially identical, regardless of species, or complexity of sensory organ type, the universal usage of light-sensitive proteins called opsins. Without focusing too much on the molecular basis though, the various constructions can be categorised into distinct groups:

  • Spot Eyes
  • Pit Eyes
  • Pinhole Eyes
  • Lens Eyes
  • Refractive Cornea Eyes
  • Reflector Eyes
  • Compound Eyes

The least complicated configuration of eyes enable organisms to simply sense the ambient light, enabling the organism to know whether there is light or not. It is normally simply a collection of photosensitive cells in a cluster in the same spot, thus sometimes referred to as spot eyes, eye spot or stemma. By either adding more angular structures or recessing the spot eyes, an organisms gains access to directional information as well, which is a vital requirement for image formation. These so called pit eyes are by far the most common types of visual sensory organs, and can be found in over 95% of all known species.

Pinhole eye

Taking this approach to the obvious extreme leads to the pit becoming a cavernous structure, which increases the sharpness of the image, alas at a loss in intensity. In other words, there is a trade-off between intensity or brightness and sharpness. An example of this can be found in the Nautilus, species belonging to the family Nautilidae, organisms considered to be living fossils. They are the only known species that has this type of eye, referred to as the pinhole eye, and it is completely analogous to the pinhole camera or the camera obscura. In addition, like more advanced cameras, Nautili are able to adjust the size of the aperture thereby increasing or decreasing the resolution of the eye at a respective decrease or increase in image brightness. Like the camera, the way to alleviate the intensity/resolution trade-off problem is to include a lens, a structure that focuses the light unto a central area, which most often has a higher density of photo-sensors. By adjusting the shape of the lens and moving it around, and controlling the size of the aperture or pupil, organisms can adapt to different conditions and focus on particular regions of interest in any visual scene. The last upgrade to the various eye constructions already mentioned is the inclusion of a refractive cornea. Eyes with this structure have delegated two thirds of the total optic power of the eye to the high refractive index liquid inside the cornea, enabling very high resolution vision. Most land animals, including humans have eyes of this particular construct. Additionally, many variations of lens structure, lens number, photosensor density, fovea shape, fovea number, pupil shape etc. exists, always, to increase the chances of survival for the organism in question. These variations lead to a varied outward appearance of eyes, even with a single eye construction category. Demonstrating this point, a collection of photographs of animals with the same eye category (refractive cornea eyes) is shown below.

Refractive Cornea Eyes
Hawk Eye
Sheep Eye
Cat Eye
Human Eye

An alternative to the lens approach called reflector eyes can be found in for example mollusks. Instead of the conventional way of focusing light to a single point in the back of the eye using a lens or a system of lenses, these organisms have mirror like structures inside the chamber of the eye that reflects the light into a central portion, much like a parabola dish. Although there are no known examples of organisms with reflector eyes capable of image formation, at least one species of fish, the spookfish (Dolichopteryx longipes) uses them in combination with "normal" lensed eyes.

Compound eye

The last group of eyes, found in insects and crustaceans, is called compound eyes. These eyes consist of a number of functional sub-units called ommatidia, each consisting of a facet, or front surface, a transparent crystalline cone and photo-sensitive cells for detection. In addition each of the ommatidia are separated by pigment cells, ensuring the incoming light is as parallel as possible. The combination of the outputs of each of these ommatidia form a mosaic image, with a resolution proportional to the number of ommatidia units. For example, if humans had compound eyes, the eyes would have covered our entire faces to retain the same resolution. As a note, there are many types of compound eyes, but delving to deep into this topic is beyond the scope of this text.

Not only the type of eyes vary, but also the number of eyes. As you are well aware of, humans usually have two eyes, spiders on the other hand have a varying number of eyes, with most species having 8. Normally the spiders also have varying sizes of the different pairs of eyes and the differing sizes have different functions. For example, in jumping spiders 2 larger front facing eyes, give the spider excellent visual acuity, which is used mainly to target prey. 6 smaller eyes have much poorer resolution, but helps the spider to avoid potential dangers. Two photographs of the eyes of a jumping spider and the eyes of a wolf spider are shown to demonstrate the variability in the eye topologies of arachnids.

Anatomy of the Visual System[edit]

We humans are visual creatures, therefore our eyes are complicated with many components. In this chapter, an attempt is made to describe these components, thus giving some insight into the properties and functionality of human vision.

Getting inside of the eyeball - Pupil, iris and the lens[edit]

Light rays enter the eye structure through the black aperture or pupil in the front of the eye. The black appearance is due to the light being fully absorbed by the tissue inside the eye. Only through this pupil can light enter into the eye which means the amount of incoming light is effectively determined by the size of the pupil. A pigmented sphincter surrounding the pupil functions as the eye's aperture stop. It is the amount of pigment in this iris, that give rise to the various eye colours found in humans.

In addition to this layer of pigment, the iris has 2 layers of ciliary muscles. A circular muscle called the pupillary sphincter in one layer, that contracts to make the pupil smaller. The other layer has a smooth muscle called the pupillary dilator, which contracts to dilate the pupil. The combination of these muscles can thereby dilate/contract the pupil depending on the requirements or conditions of the person. The ciliary muscles are controlled by ciliary zonules, fibres that also change the shape of the lens and hold it in place.

The lens is situated immediately behind the pupil. Its shape and characteristics reveal a similar purpose to that of camera lenses, but they function in slightly different ways. The shape of the lens is adjusted by the pull of the ciliary zonules, which consequently changes the focal length. Together with the cornea, the lens can change the focus, which makes it a very important structure indeed, however only one third of the total optical power of the eye is due to the lens itself. It is also the eye's main filter. Lens fibres make up most of the material for the lense, which are long and thin cells void of most of the cell machinery to promote transparency. Together with water soluble proteins called crystallins, they increase the refractive index of the lens. The fibres also play part in the structure and shape of the lens itself.

Schematic diagram of the human eye

Beamforming in the eye – Cornea and its protecting agent - Sclera[edit]

Structure of the Cornea

The cornea, responsible for the remaining 2/3 of the total optical power of the eye, covers the iris, pupil and lens. It focuses the rays that pass through the iris before they pass through the lens. The cornea is only 0.5mm thick and consists of 5 layers:

  • Epithelium: A layer of epithelial tissue covering the surface of the cornea.
  • Bowman's membrane: A thick protective layer composed of strong collagen fibres, that maintain the overall shape of the cornea.
  • Stroma: A layer composed of parallel collagen fibrils. This layer makes up 90% of the cornea's thickness.
  • Descemet's membrane and Endothelium: Are two layers adjusted to the anterior chamber of the eye filled with aqueous humor fluid produced by the ciliary body. This fluid moisturises the lens, cleans it and maintains the pressure in the eye ball. The chamber, positioned between cornea and iris, contains a trabecular meshwork body through which the fluid is drained out by Schlemm canal, through posterior chamber.

The surface of the cornea lies under two protective membranes, called the sclera and Tenon’s capsule. Both of these protective layers completely envelop the eyeball. The sclera is built from collagen and elastic fibres, which protect the eye from external damages, this layer also gives rise to the white of the eye. It is pierced by nerves and vessels with the largest hole reserved for the optic nerve. Moreover, it is covered by conjunctiva, which is a clear mucous membrane on the surface of the eyeball. This membrane also lines the inside of the eyelid. It works as a lubricant and, together with the lacrimal gland, it produces tears, that lubricate and protect the eye. The remaining protective layer, the eyelid, also functions to spread this lubricant around.

Moving the eyes – extra-ocular muscles[edit]

The eyeball is moved by a complicated muscle structure of extra-ocular muscles consisting of four rectus muscles – inferior, medial, lateral and superior and two oblique – inferior and superior. Positioning of these muscles is presented below, along with functions:

Extra-ocular muscles: Green - Lateral Rectus; Red - Medial Rectus; Cyan - Superior Rectus; Pink - Inferior Rectus; Dark Blue - Superior Oblique; Yellow - Inferior Oblique.

As you can see, the extra-ocular muscles (2,3,4,5,6,8) are attached to the sclera of the eyeball and originate in the annulus of Zinn, a fibrous tendon surrounding the optic nerve. A pulley system is created with the trochlea acting as a pulley and the superior oblique muscle as the rope, this is required to redirect the muscle force in the correct way. The remaining extra-ocular muscles have a direct path to the eye and therefore do not form these pulley systems. Using these extra-ocular muscles, the eye can rotate up, down, left, right and alternative movements are possible as a combination of these.

Other movements are also very important for us to be able to see. Vergence movements enable the proper function of binocular vision. Unconscious fast movements called saccades, are essential for people to keep an object in focus. The saccade is a sort of jittery movement performed when the eyes are scanning the visual field, in order to displace the point of fixation slightly. When you follow a moving object with your gaze, your eyes perform what is referred to as smooth pursuit. Additional involuntary movements called nystagmus are caused by signals from the vestibular system, together they make up the vestibulo-ocular reflexes.

The brain stem controls all of the movements of the eyes, with different areas responsible for different movements.

  • Pons: Rapid horizontal movements, such as saccades or nystagmus
  • Mesencephalon: Vertical and torsional movements
  • Cerebellum: Fine tuning
  • Edinger-Westphal nucleus: Vergence movements

Where the vision reception occurs – The retina[edit]

Filtering of the light performed by the cornea, lens and pigment epithelium

Before being transduced, incoming EM passes through the cornea, lens and the macula. These structures also act as filters to reduce unwanted EM, thereby protecting the eye from harmful radiation. The filtering response of each of these elements can be seen in the figure "Filtering of the light performed by cornea, lens and pigment epithelium". As one may observe, the cornea attenuates the lower wavelengths, leaving the higher wavelengths nearly untouched. The lens blocks around 25% of the EM below 400nm and more than 50% below 430nm. Finally, the pigment ephithelium, the last stage of filtering before the photo-reception, affects around 30% of the EM between 430nm and 500nm.

A part of the eye, which marks the transition from non-photosensitive region to photosensitive region, is called the ora serrata. The photosensitive region is referred to as the retina, which is the sensory structure in the back of the eye. The retina consists of multiple layers presented below with millions of photoreceptors called rods and cones, which capture the light rays and convert them into electrical impulses. Transmission of these impulses is nervously initiaed by the ganglion cells and conducted through the optic nerve, the single route by which information leaves the eye.

Structure of retina including the main cell components: RPE: retinal pigment epithelium; OS: outer segment of the photoreceptor cells; IS: inner segment of the photoreceptor cells; ONL: outer nuclear layer; OPL: outer plexiform layer; INL: inner nuclear layer IPL: inner plexiform layer; GC: ganglion cell layer; P: pigment epithelium cell; BM: Bruch-Membran; R: rods; C: cones; H: horizontal cell; B: bipolar cell; M: Müller cell; A:amacrine cell; G: ganglion cell; AX: Axon; arrow: Membrane limitans externa.

A conceptual illustration of the structure of the retina is shown on the right. As we can see, there are five main cell types:

  • photoreceptor cells
  • horizontal cells
  • bipolar cells
  • amecrine cells
  • ganglion cells

Photoreceptor cells can be further subdivided into two main types called rods and cones. Cones are much less numerous than rods in most parts of the retina, but there is an enormous aggregation of them in the macula, especially in its central part called the fovea. In this central region, each photo-sensitive cone is connected to one ganglion-cell. In addition, the cones in this region are slightly smaller than the average cone size, meaning you get more cones per area. Because of this ratio, and the high density of cones, this is where we have the highest visual acuity.

Density of rods and cones around the eye

There are 3 types of human cones, each of the cones responding to a specific range of wavelengths, because of three types of a pigment called photopsin. Each pigment is sensitive to red, blue or green wavelength of light, so we have blue, green and red cones, also called S-, M- and L-cones for their sensitivity to short-, medium- and long-wavelength respectively. It consists of protein called opsin and a bound chromphore called the retinal. The main building blocks of the cone cell are the synaptic terminal, the inner and outer segments, the interior nucleus and the mitochondria.

The spectral sensitivities of the 3 types of cones:

  • 1. S-cones absorb short-wave light, i.e. blue-violet light. The maximum absorption wavelength for the S-cones is 420nm
  • 2. M-cones absorb blue-green to yellow light. In this case The maximum absorption wavelength is 535nm
  • 3. L-cones absorb yellow to red light. The maximum absorption wavelength is 565nm
Cone cell structure

The inner segment contains organelles and the cell's nucleus and organelles. The pigment is located in the outer segment, attached to the membrane as trans-membrane proteins within the invaginations of the cell-membrane that form the membranous disks, which are clearly visible in the figure displaying the basic structure of rod and cone cells. The disks maximize the reception area of the cells. The cone photoreceptors of many vertebrates contain spherical organelles called oil droplets, which are thought to constitute intra-ocular filters which may serve to increase contrast, reduce glare and lessen chromatic aberrations caused by the mitochondrial size gradient from the periphery to the centres.

Rods have a structure similar to cones, however they contain the pigment rhodopsin instead, which allows them to detect low-intensity light and makes them 100 times more sensitive than cones. Rhodopsin is the only pigment found in human rods, and it is found on the outer side of the pigment epithelium, which similarly to cones maximizes absorption area by employing a disk structure. Similarly to cones, the synaptic terminal of the cell joins it with a bipolar cell and the inner and outer segments are connected by cilium.

The pigment rhodopsin absorbs the light between 400-600nm, with a maximum absorption at around 500nm. This wavelength corresponds to greenish-blue light which means blue colours appear more intense in relation to red colours at night.

The sensitivity of cones and rods across visible EM

EM waves with wavelengths outside the range of 400 – 700 nm are not detected by either rods nor cones, which ultimately means they are not visible to human beings.

Horizontal cells occupy the inner nuclear layer of the retina. There are two types of horizontal cells and both types hyper-polarise in response to light i.e. they become more negative. Type A consists of a subtype called HII-H2 which interacts with predominantly S-cones. Type B cells have a subtype called HI-H1, which features a dendrite tree and an axon. The former contacts mostly M- and L-cone cells and the latter rod cells. Contacts with cones are made mainly by prohibitory synapses, while the cells themselves are joined into a network with gap junctions.

Cross-section of the human retina, with bipolar cells indicated in red.

Bipolar cells spread single dendrites in the outer plexiform layer and the perikaryon, their cell bodies, are found in the inner nuclear layer. Dendrites interconnect exclusively with cones and rods and we differentiate between one rod bipolar cell and nine or ten cone bipolar cells. These cells branch with amacrine or ganglion cells in the inner plexiform layer using an axon. Rod bipolar cells connect to triad synapses or 18-70 rod cells. Their axons spread around the inner plexiform layer synaptic terminals, which contain ribbon synapses and contact a pair of cell processes in dyad synapses. They are connected to ganglion cells with AII amacrine cell links.

Amecrine cells can be found in the inner nuclear layer and in the ganglion cell layer of the retina. Occasionally they are found in the inner plexiform layer, where they work as signal modulators. They have been classified as narrow-field, small-field, medium-field or wide-field depending on their size. However, many classifications exist leading to over 40 different types of amecrine cells.

Ganglion cells are the final transmitters of visual signal from the retina to the brain. The most common ganglion cells in the retina is the midget ganglion cell and the parasol ganglion cell. The signal after having passed through all the retinal layers is passed on to these cells which are the final stage of the retinal processing chain. All the information is collected here forwarded to the retinal nerve fibres and optic nerves. The spot where the ganglion axons fuse to create an optic nerve is called the optic disc. This nerve is built mainly from the retinal ganglion axons and Portort cells. The majority of the axons transmit data to the lateral geniculate nucleus, which is a termination nexus for most parts of the nerve and which forwards the information to the visual cortex. Some ganglion cells also react to light, but because this response is slower than that of rods and cones, it is believed to be related to sensing ambient light levels and adjusting the biological clock.