16 Nov 2023
Discovery Unveils Rare Neurons Crucial for Gaze Stabilization in Human Vision
In a groundbreaking study, researchers from the Herbert Wertheim School of Optometry & Vision Science at The University of California, Berkeley, have uncovered rare neurons in the human eye that play a pivotal role in maintaining a clear and steady image of the world. This significant discovery is poised to reshape our comprehension of the human retina and shed light on the pathology of eye movement disorders.
Led by Dr. Teresa Puthussery, OD, PhD, an assistant professor at the Herbert Wertheim School of Optometry & Vision Science and the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute, the study, recently published in Nature, presents findings with potential implications for clinical applications.
The identified neurons are integral to a fundamental aspect of everyday vision known as gaze stabilization. This mechanism, operating beneath conscious awareness, prompts the eyes to reflexively track the movement of a visual scene, ensuring a sharp image is maintained even in dynamic environments such as walking down a busy street or observing scenery from a moving vehicle.
The research unveils, for the first time, the presence of these neurons, called direction-selective ganglion cells (DSGCs), in primates, including humans. DSGCs respond to motion in the visual field by intensifying their activity in their preferred direction, providing vital information to the gaze stabilization system about the direction of the visual scene's movement.
Despite their identification in rabbits in 1964, the belief that DSGCs were absent in higher species led to a decades-long speculation that primate direction selectivity was computed in the brain. However, recent evidence linking human gaze stabilization disorders to abnormal DSGC activity prompted a renewed effort to locate them in primates.
Dr. Puthussery's team employed a multi-pronged approach, leveraging state-of-the-art genetic tools, fluorescent markers, and a customized imaging system to unequivocally identify DSGCs. The success of their novel approach and the high-quality data generated were praised by experts in the field, including Dr. Marla Feller, a distinguished professor at UC Berkeley.
The newfound understanding of these rare retinal ganglion cells opens avenues for researchers to explore their role in gaze stabilization and associated disorders. Notably, the study suggests a potential link between abnormal DSGC activity and certain forms of nystagmus, a condition characterized by repetitive, uncontrolled eye movements.
Beyond the immediate impact on vision science, the study's methodology holds promise for further research. By applying a similar approach to identify other human ganglion cell types with unknown functions, researchers aim to develop more sensitive tests for detecting blinding diseases such as glaucoma. Given that glaucoma often goes undetected until irreversible damage occurs, identifying early changes in ganglion cell activity could serve as a crucial biomarker for early diagnosis and prevention of vision loss in the aging population.