Chapter 15. The Special Senses

15.5 Vision


Vision is the special sense of sight that is based on the transduction of light stimuli received through the eyes. The eyes are located within either orbit in the skull. The bony orbits surround the eyeballs, protecting them and anchoring the soft tissues of the eye (Figure 15.51). The eyelids, with lashes at their leading edges, help to protect the eye from abrasions by blocking particles that may land on the surface of the eye. The inner surface of each lid is a thin membrane known as the palpebral conjunctiva. The conjunctiva extends over the white areas of the eye (the sclera), connecting the eyelids to the eyeball. Tears are produced by the lacrimal gland, located beneath the lateral edges of the nose. Tears produced by this gland flow through the lacrimal duct to the medial corner of the eye, where the tears flow over the conjunctiva, washing away foreign particles.


This diagram shows the lateral view of the eye. The major parts are labeled.

Figure 15.51 – The Eye in the Orbit: The eye is located within the orbit and surrounded by soft tissues that protect and support its function. The orbit is surrounded by cranial bones of the skull.

Movement of the eye within the orbit is accomplished by the contraction of six extraocular muscles that originate from the bones of the orbit and insert into the surface of the eyeball (Figure 15.52). Four of the muscles are arranged at the cardinal points around the eye and are named for those locations. They are the superior rectus, medial rectus, inferior rectus, and lateral rectus. When each of these muscles contract, the eye to moves toward the contracting muscle. For example, when the superior rectus contracts, the eye rotates to look up. The superior oblique originates at the posterior orbit, near the origin of the four rectus muscles. However, the tendon of the oblique muscles threads through a pulley-like piece of cartilage known as the trochlea. The tendon inserts obliquely into the superior surface of the eye. The angle of the tendon through the trochlea means that contraction of the superior oblique rotates the eye medially. The inferior oblique muscle originates from the floor of the orbit and inserts into the inferolateral surface of the eye. When it contracts, it laterally rotates the eye, in opposition to the superior oblique. Rotation of the eye by the two oblique muscles is necessary because the eye is not perfectly aligned on the sagittal plane. When the eye looks up or down, the eye must also rotate slightly to compensate for the superior rectus pulling at approximately a 20-degree angle, rather than straight up. The same is true for the inferior rectus, which is compensated by contraction of the inferior oblique. A seventh muscle in the orbit is the levator palpebrae superioris, which is responsible for elevating and retracting the upper eyelid, a movement that usually occurs in concert with elevation of the eye by the superior rectus (see Figure 15.51).

The extraocular muscles are innervated by three cranial nerves. The lateral rectus, which causes abduction of the eye, is innervated by the abducens nerve. The superior oblique is innervated by the trochlear nerve. All of the other muscles are innervated by the oculomotor nerve, as is the levator palpebrae superioris. The motor nuclei of these cranial nerves connect to the brain stem, which coordinates eye movements.


This image shows the muscles surrounding the eye. The left panel shows the lateral view, and the right panel shows the anterior view of the right eye.

Figure 15.52 – Extraocular Muscles: The extraocular muscles move the eye within the orbit.

The eye itself is a hollow sphere composed of three layers of tissue. The outermost layer is the fibrous tunic, which includes the white sclera and clear cornea. The sclera accounts for five sixths of the surface of the eye, most of which is not visible, though humans are unique compared with many other species in having so much of the “white of the eye” visible (Figure 15.53). The transparent cornea covers the anterior tip of the eye and allows light to enter the eye. The middle layer of the eye is the vascular tunic, which is mostly composed of the choroid, ciliary body, and iris. The choroid is a layer of highly vascularized connective tissue that provides a blood supply to the eyeball. The choroid is posterior to the ciliary body, a muscular structure that is attached to the lens by zonule fibers. These two structures bend the lens, allowing it to focus light on the back of the eye. Overlaying the ciliary body, and visible in the anterior eye, is the iris—the colored part of the eye. The iris is a smooth muscle that opens or closes the pupil, which is the hole at the center of the eye that allows light to enter. The iris constricts the pupil in response to bright light and dilates the pupil in response to dim light. The innermost layer of the eye is the neural tunic, or retina, which contains the nervous tissue responsible for photoreception.

The eye is also divided into two cavities: the anterior cavity and the posterior cavity. The anterior cavity is the space between the cornea and lens, including the iris and ciliary body. It is filled with a watery fluid called the aqueous humor. The posterior cavity is the space behind the lens that extends to the posterior side of the interior eyeball, where the retina is located. The posterior cavity is filled with a more viscous fluid called the vitreous humor.

The retina is composed of several layers and contains specialized cells for the initial processing of visual stimuli. The photoreceptors (rods and cones) change their membrane potential when stimulated by light energy. The change in membrane potential alters the amount of neurotransmitter that the photoreceptor cells release onto bipolar cells in the outer synaptic layer. It is the bipolar cell in the retina that connects a photoreceptor to a retinal ganglion cell (RGC) in the inner synaptic layer. There, amacrine cells additionally contribute to retinal processing before an action potential is produced by the RGC. The axons of RGCs, which lie at the innermost layer of the retina, collect at the optic disc and leave the eye as the optic nerve (see Figure 15.53). Because these axons pass through the retina, there are no photoreceptors at the very back of the eye, where the optic nerve begins. This creates a “blind spot” in the retina, and a corresponding blind spot in our visual field.


This diagram shows the structure of the eye with the major parts labeled.

Figure 15.53 – Structure of the Eye: The sphere of the eye can be divided into anterior and posterior chambers. The wall of the eye is composed of three layers: the fibrous tunic, vascular tunic, and neural tunic. Within the neural tunic is the retina, with three layers of cells and two synaptic layers in between. The center of the retina has a small indentation known as the fovea.

Note that the photoreceptors in the retina (rods and cones) are located behind the axons, RGCs, bipolar cells, and retinal blood vessels. A significant amount of light is absorbed by these structures before the light reaches the photoreceptor cells. However, at the exact center of the retina is a small area known as the fovea. At the fovea, the retina lacks the supporting cells and blood vessels, and only contains photoreceptors. Therefore, visual acuity, or the sharpness of vision, is greatest at the fovea. This is because the fovea is where the least amount of incoming light is absorbed by other retinal structures (see Figure 15.53). As one moves in either direction from this central point of the retina, visual acuity drops significantly. In addition, each photoreceptor cell of the fovea is connected to a single RGC. Therefore, this RGC does not have to integrate inputs from multiple photoreceptors, which reduces the accuracy of visual transduction. Toward the edges of the retina, several photoreceptors converge on RGCs (through the bipolar cells) up to a ratio of 50 to 1. The difference in visual acuity between the fovea and peripheral retina is easily evidenced by looking directly at a word in the middle of this paragraph. The visual stimulus in the middle of the field of view falls on the fovea and is in the sharpest focus. Without moving your eyes off that word, notice that words at the beginning or end of the paragraph are not in focus. The images in your peripheral vision are focused by the peripheral retina, and have vague, blurry edges and words that are not as clearly identified. As a result, a large part of the neural function of the eyes is concerned with moving the eyes and head so that important visual stimuli are centered on the fovea.

Light falling on the retina causes chemical changes to pigment molecules in the photoreceptors, ultimately leading to a change in the activity of the RGCs. Photoreceptor cells have two parts, the inner segment and the outer segment (Figure 15.54). The inner segment contains the nucleus and other common organelles of a cell, whereas the outer segment is a specialized region in which photoreception takes place. There are two types of photoreceptors—rods and cones—which differ in the shape of their outer segment. The rod-shaped outer segments of the rod photoreceptor contain a stack of membrane-bound discs that contain the photosensitive pigment rhodopsin. The cone-shaped outer segments of the cone photoreceptor contain their photosensitive pigments in infoldings of the cell membrane. There are three cone photopigments, called opsins, which are each sensitive to a particular wavelength of light. The wavelength of visible light determines its color. The pigments in human eyes are specialized in perceiving three different primary colors: red, green, and blue.


The top panel shows the cellular structure of the different cells in the eye. The bottom panel shows a micrograph of the cellular structure.

Figure 15.54 – Photoreceptor: (a) All photoreceptors have inner segments containing the nucleus and other important organelles and outer segments with membrane arrays containing the photosensitive opsin molecules. Rod outer segments are long columnar shapes with stacks of membrane-bound discs that contain the rhodopsin pigment. Cone outer segments are short, tapered shapes with folds of membrane in place of the discs in the rods. (b) Tissue of the retina shows a dense layer of nuclei of the rods and cones. LM × 800. (Micrograph provided by the Regents of University of Michigan Medical School © 2012)

At the molecular level, visual stimuli cause changes in the photopigment molecule that lead to changes in membrane potential of the photoreceptor cell. A single unit of light is called a photon, which is described in physics as a packet of energy with properties of both a particle and a wave. The energy of a photon is represented by its wavelength, with each wavelength of visible light corresponding to a particular color. Visible light is electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength between 380 and 720 nm. Wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation longer than 720 nm fall into the infrared range, whereas wavelengths shorter than 380 nm fall into the ultraviolet range. Light with a wavelength of 380 nm is blue whereas light with a wavelength of 720 nm is dark red. All other colors fall between red and blue at various points along the wavelength scale.

Opsin pigments are actually transmembrane proteins that contain a cofactor known as retinal. Retinal is a hydrocarbon molecule related to vitamin A. When a photon hits retinal, the long hydrocarbon chain of the molecule is biochemically altered. Specifically, photons cause some of the double-bonded carbons within the chain to switch from a cis to a trans conformation. This process is called photoisomerization. Before interacting with a photon, retinal’s flexible double-bonded carbons are in the cis conformation. This molecule is referred to as 11-cis-retinal. A photon interacting with the molecule causes the flexible double-bonded carbons to change to the trans– conformation, forming all-trans-retinal, which has a straight hydrocarbon chain (Figure 15.55).

The shape change of retinal in the photoreceptors initiates visual transduction in the retina. Activation of retinal and the opsin proteins result in activation of a G protein. The G protein changes the membrane potential of the photoreceptor cell, which then releases less neurotransmitter into the outer synaptic layer of the retina. Until the retinal molecule is changed back to the 11-cis-retinal shape, the opsin cannot respond to light energy, which is called bleaching. When a large group of photopigments is bleached, the retina will send information as if opposing visual information is being perceived. After a bright flash of light, afterimages are usually seen in negative. The photoisomerization is reversed by a series of enzymatic changes so that the retinal responds to more light energy.


This figure shows a rod cell on the left and then shows a magnified view of the discs in the rod cells. Further magnified images show the reaction cycle required to convert cis-retinal to trans-retinal. Chemical structures of both these molecules are shown.

Figure 15.55 – Retinal Isomers: The retinal molecule has two isomers, (a) one before a photon interacts with it and (b) one that is altered through photoisomerization.

The opsins are sensitive to limited wavelengths of light. Rhodopsin, the photopigment in rods, is most sensitive to light at a wavelength of 498 nm. The three color opsins have peak sensitivities of 564 nm, 534 nm, and 420 nm corresponding roughly to the primary colors of red, green, and blue (Figure 15.56). The absorbance of rhodopsin in the rods is much more sensitive than in the cone opsins; specifically, rods are sensitive to vision in low light conditions, and cones are sensitive to brighter conditions. In normal sunlight, rhodopsin will be constantly bleached while the cones are active. In a darkened room, there is not enough light to activate cone opsins, and vision is entirely dependent on rods. Rods are so sensitive to light that a single photon can result in an action potential from a rod’s corresponding RGC.

The three types of cone opsins, being sensitive to different wavelengths of light, provide us with color vision. By comparing the activity of the three different cones, the brain can extract color information from visual stimuli. For example, a bright blue light that has a wavelength of approximately 450 nm would activate the “red” cones minimally, the “green” cones marginally, and the “blue” cones predominantly. The relative activation of the three different cones is calculated by the brain, which perceives the color as blue. However, cones cannot react to low-intensity light, and rods do not sense the color of light. Therefore, our low-light vision is—in essence—in grayscale. In other words, in a dark room, everything appears as a shade of gray. If you think that you can see colors in the dark, it is most likely because your brain knows what color something is and is relying on that memory.


This graph shows the normalized absorbance versus wavelength for different cell types in the eye.

Figure 15.56 – Comparison of Color Sensitivity of Photopigments: Comparing the peak sensitivity and absorbance spectra of the four photopigments suggests that they are most sensitive to particular wavelengths.

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Watch this video to learn more about a transverse section through the brain that depicts the visual pathway from the eye to the occipital cortex. The first half of the pathway is the projection from the RGCs through the optic nerve to the lateral geniculate nucleus in the thalamus on either side. This first fiber in the pathway synapses on a thalamic cell that then projects to the visual cortex in the occipital lobe where “seeing,” or visual perception, takes place. This video gives an abbreviated overview of the visual system by concentrating on the pathway from the eyes to the occipital lobe. The video makes the statement (at 0:45) that “specialized cells in the retina called ganglion cells convert the light rays into electrical signals.” What aspect of retinal processing is simplified by that statement? Explain your answer.


Central Pathway of Visual Information

The connections of the optic nerve are more complicated than those of other cranial nerves. Instead of the connections being between each eye and the brain, visual information is segregated between the left and right sides of the visual field. In addition, some of the information from one side of the visual field projects to the opposite side of the brain. Within each eye, the axons projecting from the medial side of the retina decussate at the optic chiasm. For example, the axons from the medial retina of the left eye cross over to the right side of the brain at the optic chiasm. However, within each eye, the axons projecting from the lateral side of the retina do not decussate. For example, the axons from the lateral retina of the right eye project back to the right side of the brain. Therefore the left field of view of each eye is processed on the right side of the brain, whereas the right field of view of each eye is processed on the left side of the brain (Figure 15.57).


This image shows the right and left visual fields in the brain. It describes how the optical fields map to different sides of the brain.

Figure 15.57 – Segregation of Visual Field Information at the Optic Chiasm: Contralateral visual field information from the lateral retina projects to the ipsilateral brain, whereas ipsilateral visual field information has to decussate at the optic chiasm to reach the opposite side of the brain.

A unique clinical presentation that relates to this anatomic arrangement is the loss of lateral peripheral vision, known as bilateral hemianopia. This is different from “tunnel vision” because the superior and inferior peripheral fields are not lost. Visual field deficits can be disturbing for a patient, but in this case, the cause is not within the visual system itself. A growth of the pituitary gland presses against the optic chiasm and interferes with signal transmission. However, the axons projecting to the same side of the brain are unaffected. Therefore, the patient loses the outermost areas of their field of vision and cannot see objects to their right and left.

Extending from the optic chiasm, the axons of the visual system are referred to as the optic tract instead of the optic nerve. The optic tract has three major targets, two in the diencephalon and one in the midbrain. The connection between the eyes and diencephalon is demonstrated during development, in which the neural tissue of the retina differentiates from that of the diencephalon by the growth of the secondary vesicles. The connections of the retina into the CNS are a holdover from this developmental association. The majority of the connections of the optic tract are to the thalamus—specifically, the lateral geniculate nucleus. Axons from this nucleus then project to the visual cortex of the cerebrum, located in the occipital lobe. Another target of the optic tract is the superior colliculus.

In addition, a very small number of RGC axons project from the optic chiasm to the suprachiasmatic nucleus of the hypothalamus. These RGCs are photosensitive, in that they respond to the presence or absence of light. Unlike the photoreceptors, however, these photosensitive RGCs cannot be used to perceive images. By simply responding to the absence or presence of light, these RGCs can send information about day length. The perceived proportion of sunlight to darkness establishes the circadian rhythm of our bodies, allowing certain physiological events to occur at approximately the same time every day.

Cortical Processing of Visual Information

Likewise, the topographic relationship between the retina and the visual cortex is maintained throughout the visual pathway. The visual field is projected onto the two retinae, as described above, with sorting at the optic chiasm. The right peripheral visual field falls on the medial portion of the right retina and the lateral portion of the left retina. The right medial retina then projects across the midline through the optic chiasm. This results in the right visual field being processed in the left visual cortex. Likewise, the left visual field is processed in the right visual cortex (see Figure 15.57). Though the chiasm is helping to sort right and left visual information, superior and inferior visual information is maintained topographically in the visual pathway. Light from the superior visual field falls on the inferior retina, and light from the inferior visual field falls on the superior retina. This topography is maintained such that the superior region of the visual cortex processes the inferior visual field and vice versa. Therefore, the visual field information is inverted and reversed as it enters the visual cortex—up is down, and left is right. However, the cortex processes the visual information such that the final conscious perception of the visual field is correct. The topographic relationship is evident in that information from the foveal region of the retina is processed in the center of the primary visual cortex. Information from the peripheral regions of the retina are correspondingly processed toward the edges of the visual cortex. Similar to the exaggerations in the sensory homunculus of the somatosensory cortex, the foveal-processing area of the visual cortex is disproportionately larger than the areas processing peripheral vision.

In an experiment performed in the 1960s, subjects wore prism glasses so that the visual field was inverted before reaching the eye. On the first day of the experiment, subjects would duck when walking up to a table, thinking it was suspended from the ceiling. However, after a few days of acclimation, the subjects behaved as if everything were represented correctly. Therefore, the visual cortex is somewhat flexible in adapting to the information it receives from our eyes (Figure 15.58).


This image shows the mapping of the right and left visual fields on the brain. It also explains how the brain merges images from both visual fields.

Figure 15.58 – Topographic Mapping of the Retina onto the Visual Cortex: The visual field projects onto the retina through the lenses and falls on the retinae as an inverted, reversed image. The topography of this image is maintained as the visual information travels through the visual pathway to the cortex.

The cortex has been described as having specific regions that are responsible for processing specific information; there is the visual cortex, somatosensory cortex, gustatory cortex, etc. However, our experience of these senses is not divided. Instead, we experience what can be referred to as a seamless percept. Our perceptions of the various sensory modalities—though distinct in their content—are integrated by the brain so that we experience the world as a continuous whole.

In the cerebral cortex, sensory processing begins at the primary sensory cortex, then proceeds to an association area, and finally, into a multimodal integration area. For example, the visual pathway projects from the retinae through the thalamus to the primary visual cortex in the occipital lobe. This area is primarily in the medial wall within the longitudinal fissure. Here, visual stimuli begin to be recognized as basic shapes. Edges of objects are recognized and built into more complex shapes. Also, inputs from both eyes are compared to extract depth information. Because of the overlapping field of view between the two eyes, the brain can begin to estimate the distance of stimuli based on binocular depth cues.

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Watch this video to learn more about how the brain perceives 3-D motion. Similar to how retinal disparity offers 3-D moviegoers a way to extract 3-D information from the two-dimensional visual field projected onto the retina, the brain can extract information about movement in space by comparing what the two eyes see. If movement of a visual stimulus is leftward in one eye and rightward in the opposite eye, the brain interprets this as movement toward (or away) from the face along the midline. If both eyes see an object moving in the same direction, but at different rates, what would that mean for spatial movement?


Everyday Connections –  Depth Perception, 3-D Movies, and Optical Illusions

The visual field is projected onto the retinal surface, where photoreceptors transduce light energy into neural signals for the brain to interpret. The retina is a two-dimensional surface, so it does not encode three-dimensional information. However, we can perceive depth. How is that accomplished?

Two ways in which we can extract depth information from the two-dimensional retinal signal are based on monocular cues and binocular cues, respectively. Monocular depth cues are those that are the result of information within the two-dimensional visual field. One object that overlaps another object has to be in front. Relative size differences are also a cue. For example, if a basketball appears larger than the basket, then the basket must be further away. On the basis of experience, we can estimate how far away the basket is. Binocular depth cues compare information represented in the two retinae because they do not see the visual field exactly the same.

The centers of the two eyes are separated by a small distance, which is approximately 6 to 6.5 cm in most people. Because of this offset, visual stimuli do not fall on exactly the same spot on both retinae unless we are fixated directly on them and they fall on the fovea of each retina. All other objects in the visual field, either closer or farther away than the fixated object, will fall on different spots on the retina. When vision is fixed on an object in space, closer objects will fall on the lateral retina of each eye, and more distant objects will fall on the medial retina of either eye (Figure 15.59). This is easily observed by holding a finger up in front of your face as you look at a more distant object. You will see two images of your finger that represent the two disparate images that are falling on either retina.

These depth cues, both monocular and binocular, can be exploited to make the brain think there are three dimensions in two-dimensional information. This is the basis of 3-D movies. The projected image on the screen is two dimensional, but it has disparate information embedded in it. The 3-D glasses that are available at the theater filter the information so that only one eye sees one version of what is on the screen, and the other eye sees the other version. If you take the glasses off, the image on the screen will have varying amounts of blur because both eyes are seeing both layers of information, and the third dimension will not be evident. Some optical illusions can take advantage of depth cues as well, though those are more often using monocular cues to fool the brain into seeing different parts of the scene as being at different depths.


This image shows how the left and right eye view objects that are closer and farther away.

Figure 15.59 – Retinal Disparity: Because of the interocular distance, which results in objects of different distances falling on different spots of the two retinae, the brain can extract depth perception from the two-dimensional information of the visual field.

There are two main regions that surround the primary cortex that are usually referred to as areas V2 and V3 (the primary visual cortex is area V1). These surrounding areas are the visual association cortex. The visual association regions develop more complex visual perceptions by adding color and motion information. The information processed in these areas is then sent to regions of the temporal and parietal lobes. Visual processing has two separate streams of processing: one into the temporal lobe and one into the parietal lobe. These are the ventral and dorsal streams, respectively (Figure 15.510). The ventral stream identifies visual stimuli and their significance. Because the ventral stream uses temporal lobe structures, it begins to interact with the non-visual cortex and may be important in visual stimuli becoming part of memories. The dorsal stream locates objects in space and helps in guiding movements of the body in response to visual inputs. The dorsal stream enters the parietal lobe, where it interacts with somatosensory cortical areas that are important for our perception of the body and its movements. The dorsal stream can then influence frontal lobe activity where motor functions originate.


This image shows the side of the human brain and maps different regions to different visual functions.

Figure 15.510 – Ventral and Dorsal Visual Streams: From the primary visual cortex in the occipital lobe, visual processing continues in two streams—one into the temporal lobe and one into the parietal lobe.


Disorders of the…Brain: Prosopagnosia
The failures of sensory perception can be unusual and debilitating. A particular sensory deficit that inhibits an important social function of humans is prosopagnosia, or face blindness. The word comes from the Greek words prosopa, that means “faces,” and agnosia, that means “not knowing.” Some people may feel that they cannot recognize people easily by their faces. However, a person with prosopagnosia cannot recognize the most recognizable people in their respective cultures. They would not recognize the face of a celebrity, an important historical figure, or even a family member like their mother. They may not even recognize their own face.

Prosopagnosia can be caused by trauma to the brain, or it can be present from birth. The exact cause of proposagnosia and the reason that it happens to some people is unclear. A study of the brains of people born with the deficit found that a specific region of the brain, the anterior fusiform gyrus of the temporal lobe, is often underdeveloped. This region of the brain is concerned with the recognition of visual stimuli and its possible association with memories. Though the evidence is not yet definitive, this region is likely to be where facial recognition occurs.

Though this can be a devastating condition, people who suffer from it can get by—often by using other cues to recognize the people they see. Often, the sound of a person’s voice, or the presence of unique cues such as distinct facial features (a mole, for example) or hair color can help the sufferer recognize a familiar person. In the video on prosopagnosia provided in this section, a woman is shown having trouble recognizing celebrities, family members, and herself. In some situations, she can use other cues to help her recognize faces.


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The inability to recognize people by their faces is a troublesome problem. It can be caused by trauma, or it may be inborn. Watch this video to learn more about a person who lost the ability to recognize faces as the result of an injury. She cannot recognize the faces of close family members or herself. What other information can a person suffering from prosopagnosia use to figure out whom they are seeing?