On rare occasion, the light-sensing photoreceptor cells in the eye misfire and signal to the brain as if they have captured photons, when in reality they haven't. For years this phenomenon remained a mystery. Reporting in the June 10 issue of Science, neuroscientists at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine have discovered that a light-capturing pigment molecule in photoreceptors can be triggered by heat, as well, giving rise to these false alarms.
"A photon, the unit of light, is just energy, which, when captured by the pigment rhodopsin, most of the time causes the molecule to change shape, then triggering the cell to send an electrical signal to the brain to inform about light absorption," explains King-Wai Yau, Ph.D., professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins and member of its Center for Sensory Biology. "If rhodopsin can be triggered by light energy," says Yau, "it may also be occasionally triggered by other types of energy, such as heat, producing false alarms. These fake signals compromise our ability to see objects on a moonless night. So we tried to figure it out; namely, how the pigment is tripped by accident."
"Thermal energy is everywhere, as long as the temperature is above absolute zero," says neuroscience research associate Dong-Gen Luo, Ph.D. "The question is: How much heat energy would it take to trigger rhodopsin and enable it to fire off a signal, even without capturing light?" says Johns Hopkins Biochemistry, Cellular and Molecular Biology graduate student Wendy Yue.
For 30 years, the assumption was that heat could trigger a pigment molecule to send a false signal, but through a mechanism different from that of light, says Yau, because it seemed, based on theoretical calculations: that very little thermal energy was required compared to light energy.
But the theory, according to Yau, was based mainly on the pigment rhodopsin. However, rhodopsin is mainly responsible for seeing in dim l
|Contact: Audrey Huang|
Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions