Physiological Reviews

Intrinsically Photosensitive Retinal Ganglion Cells

Michael Tri Hoang Do, King-Wai Yau


Life on earth is subject to alternating cycles of day and night imposed by the rotation of the earth. Consequently, living things have evolved photodetective systems to synchronize their physiology and behavior with the external light-dark cycle. This form of photodetection is unlike the familiar “image vision,” in that the basic information is light or darkness over time, independent of spatial patterns. “Nonimage” vision is probably far more ancient than image vision and is widespread in living species. For mammals, it has long been assumed that the photoreceptors for nonimage vision are also the textbook rods and cones. However, recent years have witnessed the discovery of a small population of retinal ganglion cells in the mammalian eye that express a unique visual pigment called melanopsin. These ganglion cells are intrinsically photosensitive and drive a variety of nonimage visual functions. In addition to being photoreceptors themselves, they also constitute the major conduit for rod and cone signals to the brain for nonimage visual functions such as circadian photoentrainment and the pupillary light reflex. Here we review what is known about these novel mammalian photoreceptors.

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