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Bright lights, not-so-big pupils
Date:12/31/2008

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 retinarods and conesmelanopsin-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 lightgiving lots of captured photonsfor 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
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Contact: Maryalice Yakutchik
myakutc1@jhmi.edu
443-287-2251
Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions
Source:Eurekalert

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