Biological Machines/Sensory Systems/Visual System/Sensory Organ Components
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
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.
Beamforming in the eye – Cornea and its protecting agent - Sclera
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
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:
1 = Annulus of Zinn – Muscle Attachment
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
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.
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.
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 reinal. 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
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.
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.
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.