A Brown University team has found that a protein called melanopsin plays a key role in the inner workings of mysterious, spidery cells in the eye called intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells, or ipRGCs.
Visual clues to daily rhythms - Intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells – ipRGCs, right – were discovered in 2002. New research shows that the protein melanopsin enables ipRGCs to do their job of setting the body’s master circadian clock. It may be an extremely ancient system in terms of evolution, researchers say.
Melanopsin, they found, absorbs light and triggers a biochemical cascade that allows the cells to signal the brain about brightness. Through these signals, ipRGCs synchronize the body’s daily rhythms to the rising and setting of the sun. This circadian rhythm controls alertness, sleep, hormone production, body temperature and organ function. Brown researchers, led by neuroscientist David Berson, announced the discovery of ipRGCs in 2002. Their work was astonishing: Rods and cones aren’t the only light-sensitive eye cells.
Like rods and cones, ipRGCs turn light energy into electrical signals. But while rods and cones aid sight by detecting objects, colors and movement, ipRGCs gauge overall light intensity. Numbering only about 1,000 to 2,000 out of millions of eyes cells, ipRGCs are different in another way: They have a direct link to brain, sending a message to the tiny region that controls the body clock about how light or dark the environment is. The cells are also responsible for narrowing the pupil of the eye.
Wendy Lawton | EurekAlert!
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