The Eye



Basic Anatomy
Although small in size, the eye is a very complex organ. The eye is approximately 1 inch (2.54 cm) wide, 1 inch deep and 0.9 inches (2.3 cm) tall.

The tough, outermost layer of the eye is called the sclera. It maintains the shape of the eye. The front sixth of this layer is clear and is called the cornea. All light must first pass through the cornea when it enters the eye. Attached to the sclera are the muscles that move the eye, called the extraocular muscles.

The choroid (or uveal tract) is the second layer of the eye. It contains the blood vessels that supply blood to structures of the eye. The front part of the choroid contains two structures:

The iris has two muscles: The dilator muscle makes the iris smaller and therefore the pupil larger, allowing more light into the eye; the sphincter muscle makes the iris larger and the pupil smaller, allowing less light into the eye. Pupil size can change from 2 millimeters to 8 millimeters. This means that by changing the size of the pupil, the eye can change the amount of light that enters it by 30 times.

The innermost layer is the retina -- the light-sensing portion of the eye. It contains rod cells, which are responsible for vision in low light, and cone cells, which are responsible for color vision and detail. In the back of the eye, in the center of the retina, is the macula. In the center of the macula is an area called the fovea centralis. This area contains only cones and is responsible for seeing fine detail clearly.

The retina contains a chemical called rhodopsin, or "visual purple." This is the chemical that converts light into electrical impulses that the brain interprets as vision. The retinal nerve fibers collect at the back of the eye and form the optic nerve, which conducts the electrical impulses to the brain. The spot where the optic nerve and blood vessels exit the retina is called the optic disk. This area is a blind spot on the retina because there are no rods or cones at that location. However, you are not aware of this blind spot because each eye covers for the blind spot of the other eye.

When a doctor looks at the back of your eye through an ophthalmoscope, here's the view:


Inside the eyeball there are two fluid-filled sections separated by the lens. The larger, back section contains a clear, gel-like material called vitreous humor. The smaller, front section contains a clear, watery material called aqueous humor. The aqueous humor is divided into two sections called the anterior chamber (in front of the iris) and the posterior chamber (behind the iris). The aqueous humor is produced in the ciliary body and is drained through the canal of Schlemm. When this drainage is blocked, a disease called glaucoma can result.

The lens is a clear, bi-convex structure about 10 mm (0.4 inches) in diameter. The lens changes shape because it is attached to muscles in the ciliary body. The lens is used to fine-tune vision.

Covering the inside surface of the eyelids and sclera is a mucous membrane called the conjunctiva, which helps to keep the eye moist. An infection of this area is called conjunctivitis (also called pink eye).

The eye is unique in that it is able to move in many directions to maximize the field of vision, yet is protected from injury by a bony cavity called the orbital cavity. The eye is embedded in fat, which provides some cushioning. The eyelids protect the eye by blinking. This also keeps the surface of the eye moist by spreading tears over the eyes. Eyelashes and eyebrows protect the eye from particles that may injure it.

Tears are produced in the lacrimal glands, which are located above the outer segment of each eye. The tears eventually drain into the inner corner of the eye, into the lacrimal sac, then through the nasal duct and into the nose. That is why your nose runs when you cry.

There are six muscles attached to the sclera that control the movements of the eye. They are shown here:



Muscle Primary Function
Medial rectus moves eye towards nose
Lateral rectus moves eye away from nose
Superior rectus raises eye
Inferior rectus

lowers eye

Superior oblique rotates eye
Inferior oblique rotates eye




Perceiving Light
When light enters the eye, it first passes through the cornea, then the aqueous humor, lens and vitreous humor. Ultimately it reaches the retina, which is the light-sensing structure of the eye. The retina contains two types of cells, called rods and cones. Rods handle vision in low light, and cones handle color vision and detail. When light contacts these two types of cells, a series of complex chemical reactions occurs. The chemical that is formed (activated rhodopsin) creates electrical impulses in the optic nerve. Generally, the outer segment of rods are long and thin, whereas the outer segment of cones are more, well, cone shaped. Below is an example of a rod and a cone:


The outer segment of a rod or a cone contains the photosensitive chemicals. In rods, this chemical is called rhodopsin; in cones, these chemicals are called color pigments. The retina contains 100 million rods and 7 million cones. The retina is lined with black pigment called melanin -- just as the inside of a camera is black -- to lessen the amount of reflection. The retina has a central area, called the macula, that contains a high concentration of only cones. This area is responsible for sharp, detailed vision.

When light enters the eye, it comes in contact with the photosensitive chemical rhodopsin (also called visual purple). Rhodopsin is a mixture of a protein called scotopsin and 11-cis-retinal -- the latter is derived from vitamin A (which is why a lack of vitamin A causes vision problems). Rhodopsin decomposes when it is exposed to light because light causes a physical change in the 11-cis-retinal portion of the rhodopsin, changing it to all-trans retinal. This first reaction takes only a few trillionths of a second. The 11-cis-retinal is an angulated molecule, while all-trans retinal is a straight molecule. This makes the chemical unstable. Rhodopsin breaks down into several intermediate compounds, but eventually (in less than a second) forms metarhodopsin II (activated rhodopsin). This chemical causes electrical impulses that are transmitted to the brain and interpreted as light. Here is a diagram of the chemical reaction we just discussed:


Activated rhodopsin causes electrical impulses in the following way:

  1. The cell membrane (outer layer) of a rod cell has an electric charge. When light activates rhodopsin, it causes a reduction in cyclic GMP, which causes this electric charge to increase. This produces an electric current along the cell. When more light is detected, more rhodopsin is activated and more electric current is produced.
  2. This electric impulse eventually reaches a ganglion cell, and then the optic nerve.
  3. The nerves reach the optic chasm, where the nerve fibers from the inside half of each retina cross to the other side of the brain, but the nerve fibers from the outside half of the retina stay on the same side of the brain.
  4. These fibers eventually reach the back of the brain (occipital lobe). This is where vision is interpreted and is called the primary visual cortex. Some of the visual fibers go to other parts of the brain to help to control eye movements, response of the pupils and iris, and behavior.

Eventually, rhodopsin needs to be re-formed so that the process can recur. The all-trans retinal is converted to 11-cis-retinal, which then recombines with scotopsin to form rhodopsin to begin the process again when exposed to light.



Color Vision
The color-responsive chemicals in the cones are called cone pigments and are very similar to the chemicals in the rods. The retinal portion of the chemical is the same, however the scotopsin is replaced with photopsins. Therefore, the color-responsive pigments are made of retinal and photopsins. There are three kinds of color-sensitive pigments:

Each cone cell has one of these pigments so that it is sensitive to that color. The human eye can sense almost any gradation of color when red, green and blue are mixed.


In the diagram above, the wavelengths of the three types of cones (red, green and blue) are shown. The peak absorbancy of blue-sensitive pigment is 445 nanometers, for green-sensitive pigment it is 535 nanometers, and for red-sensitive pigment it is 570 nanometers.




Color Blindness
Color blindness is the inability to differentiate between different colors. The most common type is red-green color blindness. This occurs in 8 percent of males and 0.4 percent of females. It occurs when either the red or green cones are not present or not functioning properly. People with this problem are not completely unable to see red or green, but often confuse the two colors.

This is an inherited disorder and affects men more commonly since the capacity for color vision is located on the X chromosome. (Women have two X chromosomes, so the probability of inheriting at least one X with normal color vision is high; men have only one X chromosome to work with. The inability to see any color, or seeing only in different shades of gray, is very rare.

While most of us can see the wide variety of colors in the world, some people see only shades of gray. If you have normal color vision, you are a trichromat, and if you can see only light and dark, you are totally color-blind, or a monochromat.
     It is more common to be partially color-blind, or a dichromat. Color blindness is determined genetically, is sex-linked, and occurs mostly in males. In the United States 10 percent of men are color-blind, while only about 1 percent of women are (Gouras, 1985). The dichromat lacks one of the three types of cones. For example, if the red-green complement of cones is missing, he will be unable to distinguish red and green and will see all colors as yellow or blue. Among men, about 7 percent of the population suffers from red-green color blindness. A few individuals have blue-yellow blindness and see all colors as red or green. Although many animals, including dogs, are monochromats, there are very few cases of total color blindness in humans.


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