Intrinsically Photosensitive Retinal Ganglion Cells

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The recent discovery of melanopsin-expressing retinal ganglion cells that mediate the pupil light reflex has provided new insights into how the pupil responds to different properties of light. These ganglion cells are unique in their ability to transduce light into electrical energy. There are parallels between the electrophysiologic behavior of these cells in primates and the clinical pupil response to chromatic stimuli. Under photopic conditions, a red light stimulus produces a pupil constriction mediated predominantly by cone input via trans-synaptic activation of melanopsin-expressing retinal ganglion cells, whereas a blue light stimulus at high intensity produces a steady-state pupil constriction mediated primarily by direct intrinsic photoactivation of the melanopsin-expressing ganglion cells. Preliminary data in humans suggest that under photopic conditions, cones primarily drive the transient phase of the pupil light reflex, whereas intrinsic activation of the melanopsin-expressing ganglion cells contributes heavily to sustained pupil constriction. The use of chromatic light stimuli to elicit transient and sustained pupil light reflexes may become a clinical pupil test that allows differentiation between disorders affecting photoreceptors and those affecting retinal ganglion cells.

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