Eyes have a natural version of night vision

September 13, 2018, Duke University
The ganglion cell layer of the retina is labelled with red to show the presence of a cell sensitive to motion in the upward direction. In low light, these cells become generalists to help the retina pick up the faintest signals of any kind of motion. Credit: Xiaoyang Yao, Duke University and Amanda J. McLaughlin at the University of Victoria

To see under starlight and moonlight, the retina of the eye changes both the software and hardware of its light-sensing cells to create a kind of night vision. Retinal circuits that were thought to be unchanging and programmed for specific tasks are adaptable to different light conditions, say the Duke scientists who identified how the retina reprograms itself for low light.

"To see under starlight, biology has had to reach the limit of seeing an elementary particle from the universe, a single photon," said Greg Field, an assistant professor of neurobiology and biomedical engineering at Duke University. "It's remarkable at night how few photons there are."

The findings, which appear early online in Neuron, show that the reprogramming happens in that are sensitive to .

Even in the best lighting, identifying the presence and direction of a moving object is key to survival for most animals. But detecting motion with a single point of reference doesn't work very well. So, the retinas of vertebrates have four kinds of motion-sensitive cells, each specifically responsive to a motion that is up, down, right or left.

When an object is moving in precisely one of those directions, that population of will fire strongly, Field said. However, if the motion is halfway between up and left, both populations of cells will fire, but not quite as strongly. The brain interprets that kind of signal as motion going both up and left.

"For complex tasks, the brain uses large populations of neurons, because there's only so much a single neuron can accomplish," Field said.

In humans, these directional neurons account for about 4 percent of the cells that send signals from the retina to the brain. In rodents, it's more like 20 to 30 percent, Field said, because motion detection is vitally important for an animal that other animals really like to eat.

In a study with mouse retinas conducted under a microscope equipped with eye pieces in a very dark room, graduate student Xiaoyang Yao in Field's lab found that the retinal cells sensitive to upward movement change their behavior in low light. The "up" neurons will fire upon detecting any kind of movement, not just upward.

A small sample of mouse retina was placed on an electrode array that can measure the individual firing of hundreds of neurons at once "and then we show it movies," Field said. "Xiaoyang's insight was to go and look at what these cells do in day and night," Field said. "She noticed a difference and wondered why."

When there is much less light available, a weak signal of motion from the 'up' neurons, coupled with a weak signal from any of the other directional cells can help the brain sense movement, similar to the way it interprets two directional signals as being a motion that is something in between.

The loss of motion perception is a common complaint in human patients with severe vision loss. Field said this finding about the adaptability of may help the design of implantable retinal prosthetics in the future.

"A lot of animals choose to forage at night, presumably because it's harder for predators to see," Field said. "But of course, nature is an arms race. Owls and cats have developed highly specialized eyes to see at night. The prey have altered what they have to survive."

For reasons that aren't yet clear, it's only the "up" cells that become motion generalists in low light. Field suspects that up is the most important direction for a prey animal to spot a predator that looms upward as it approaches its prey, but he doesn't have that data yet.

What's important for now is that the eye and brain alter their computation of motion in low-light. "We've learned that large populations of retinal neurons can adapt their function to compensate for different conditions," Field said.

The retina consists of many circuits working in parallel, said Jeffrey Diamond, a senior investigator at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke who also studies visual processing in the retina. "We're learning that these circuits are doing different things at different times of day," said Diamond, who was not involved with Field's paper.

Now that Field has found this one adaptation to low light that is driven by changes in both the circuitry and the chemical signals between cells, it begs the question of how many other adaptations are going to be found, Diamond said.

"There are 50 kinds of amacrine cells, the drug cabinets of the , and most of them likely release multiple neurotransmitters that can influence the retinal circuit," Diamond said. "We only know something about only 20 percent of those ."

Explore further: Computations of visual motion in the brain

More information: "Gap Junctions Contribute to Differential Light Adaptation Across Selective Retinal Ganglion Cells," Xiaoyang Yao, Jon Cafaro, Amanda J. McLaughlin, Friso R. Postma, David L. Paul, Gautam Awatramani, Greg. D. Field. Neuron, Early online Sept. 13, 2018. DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2018.08.021

Related Stories

Computations of visual motion in the brain

May 22, 2017
Botond Roska and his group at the FMI have elucidated how the retina and the visual cortex work together in visual motion perception. They found that cortical cells, which respond preferentially to backward image motion, ...

Eye's motion detection sensors identified

June 17, 2015
Driving a car at 40 mph, you see a child dart into the street. You hit the brakes. Disaster averted.

Scientists visualize the connections between eye and brain

July 2, 2018
Most of the human brain's estimated 86 billion nerve cells, or neurons, can ultimately engage in a two-way dialogue with any other neuron. To shed more light on how neurons in this labyrinthine network integrate information—that ...

Researchers reverse congenital blindness in mice

August 15, 2018
Researchers funded by the National Eye Institute (NEI) have reversed congenital blindness in mice by changing supportive cells in the retina called Müller glia into rod photoreceptors. The findings advance efforts toward ...

Motion-sensing cells in the eye let the brain 'know' about directional changes

March 4, 2014
How do we "know" from the movements of speeding car in our field of view if it's coming straight toward us or more likely to move to the right or left?

Circuit in the eye relies on built-in delay to see small moving objects

August 31, 2015
When we move our head, the whole visual world moves across our eyes. Yet we can still make out a bee buzzing by or a hawk flying overhead, thanks to unique cells in the eye called object motion sensors. A new study on mice ...

Recommended for you

A 15-minute scan could help diagnose brain damage in newborns

November 14, 2018
A 15-minute scan could help diagnose brain damage in babies up to two years earlier than current methods.

Precision neuroengineering enables reproduction of complex brain-like functions in vitro

November 14, 2018
One of the most important and surprising traits of the brain is its ability to dynamically reconfigure the connections to process and respond properly to stimuli. Researchers from Tohoku University (Sendai, Japan) and the ...

New brain imaging research shows that when we expect something to hurt it does, even if the stimulus isn't so painful

November 14, 2018
Expect a shot to hurt and it probably will, even if the needle poke isn't really so painful. Brace for a second shot and you'll likely flinch again, even though—second time around—you should know better.

New clues to the origin and progression of multiple sclerosis

November 13, 2018
Mapping of a certain group of cells, known as oligodendrocytes, in the central nervous system of a mouse model of multiple sclerosis (MS), shows that they might have a significant role in the development of the disease. The ...

Mutations, CRISPR, and the biology behind movement disorders

November 12, 2018
Scientists at the RIKEN Center for Brain Science (CBS) in Japan have discovered how mutations related to a group of movement disorders produce their effects. Published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the ...

In live brain function, researchers are finally seeing red

November 12, 2018
For years, green has been the most reliable hue for live brain imaging, but after using a new high-throughput screening method, researchers at the John B. Pierce Laboratory and the Yale School of Medicine, together with collaborators ...

8 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

grandpa
1 / 5 (2) Sep 13, 2018
Pretty sure they hunt at night because it is much cooler.
Bart_A
2.3 / 5 (6) Sep 13, 2018
This is a great scientific article that notes how wonderfully we are made! It was especially refreshing because the authors refrained from unscientific comments like "this shows the results of evolutionary processes over time" (which of course it doesn't).
barakn
3 / 5 (4) Sep 13, 2018
Of course it doesn't? If it didn't then you wouldn't need to mention it.
Bart_A
2.3 / 5 (6) Sep 13, 2018
Hi Barak, your comment does not make any sense. What are you trying to say?

FredJose
2.3 / 5 (3) Sep 14, 2018
the retina of the eye changes both the software and hardware of its light-sensing cells to create a kind of night vision.

Obviously a major problem for a belief in the random processes of evolution.
How to write codes and decoders at absolute random and get them to perform a useful function ? - triggered, mind you, by another process that detects and then signals the change in conditions such that the morphing process can start.

If anyone really, truly believes in evolution - and its sidekick abiogenesis - they have to blinker themselves to the requirement that random physical processes can produce that abstract entity called INFORMATION which is of necessity associated only with intelligence.
How can that happen? The evolutionist need to seriously consider and answer that most enigmatic of questions.
Bart_A
3 / 5 (4) Sep 14, 2018
Fred--very well put.

shortwave02001
not rated yet Sep 17, 2018
In my country fishermen use marijuana either smoked or ingested to help them see better at night
TrollBane
not rated yet Sep 25, 2018
Brat A: "This is a great scientific article that notes how wonderfully we are made!" Especially your superior race, eh? No, I won't ignore the racist drivel you posted elsewhere.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.