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Not so different after all: Mysterious eye cells adapt to light

A new retinal photoreceptor adjusts its sensitivity in different lighting conditions, according to scientists at Brown University, where the rare eye cells were discovered.

The results, published in Neuron, are a surprise. Though rods and cones, their biological cousins in the retina, clearly adjust to light levels, these new cells intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells, or ipRGCs were assumed not to adapt this way. Still, the adaptation process in ipRGCs is weaker and slower than it is in rods and cones.

The findings provide further evidence that the eye has complementary brain-signaling systems at work. Rods and cones rapidly communicate changes in brightness, signals which allow us to glimpse a baseball streaking across the sky or a deer darting into a darkened road. But ipRGCs work differently. They send signals about overall brightness, telling the brain when it is night and when it is day.

"These cells operate like a light meter on a camera," said David Berson, the Sidney A. Fox and Dorothea Doctors Fox Professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences. "They tell the brain to constrict the pupil based on the amount of light registered over time."

Berson discovered ipRGCs in his Brown neuroscience lab three years ago. These cells number no more than 2,000 in the eye and have a direct link to the brain, sending electrical messages to an area regulating the pupil as well as a region controlling the body clock. This circadian rhythm controls alertness, sleep, hormone production, body temperature and organ function.

Earlier this year, the Berson lab reported in Nature that a protein called melanopsin plays a key role in the cells' ability to absorb light energy, sparking a chain reaction that sends these signals to the brain.

But how ipRGCs behave naturally is largely unknown. The authors said this new work fills in a few blanks in the scientific book.

"Until now, we didn't know if these cells wer
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Contact: Wendy Lawton
Wendy_Lawton@brown.edu
401-863-1862
Brown University
4-Jan-2006


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