CAMBRIDGE, Mass., March 27, 2008 -- Harvard University researchers have discovered a new type of retinal cell that plays an exclusive and unusual role in mice: detecting upward motion. The cells reflect their function in the physical arrangement of their dendrites, branch-like structures on neuronal cells that form a communicative network with other dendrites and neurons in the brain.
The work, led by neuroscientists Joshua R. Sanes and Markus Meister, is described this week in the journal Nature.
"The structure of these cells resembles the photos you see in the aftermath of a hurricane, where all the trees have fallen down in the same direction," says Meister, the Jeff C. Tarr Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology in Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences. "When you look at these neurons in the microscope, they all point the same way. Theres no other cell type in the retina that has that degree of directionality."
The cells, like other retinal neurons, are composed of a round cell body surrounded by a tangle of dendrites. Most retinal neurons distribute their dendrites evenly around the cell body, but the upward motion-detecting cells arrange almost 90 percent of their dendrite tangle exclusively on one side of the cell body.
"This lopsided arrangement literally directs the cell's function, orienting the dendrites downward like roots of great trees," says Sanes, professor of molecular and cellular biology and Paul J. Finnegan Family Director of Harvard's Center for Brain Science. "Because the eye's lens acts as a camera, reversing incoming light rays as they strike the retinal tissue, an object moving up will result in a downward-moving image at the back of the eye -- the exact orientation of the cells' dendrites."
The research builds on efforts by Meister to understand neural processing in the retina, as well as work in Sanes's laboratory to identify and mark neurons in the retina using molecular tags. Recent
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