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Purves D, Augustine GJ, Fitzpatrick D, et al., editors. Neuroscience. 2nd edition. Sunderland (MA): Sinauer Associates; 2001.

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Neuroscience. 2nd edition.

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The Formation of Images on the Retina

Because light rays diverge in all directions from their source, the set of rays from each point in space that reach the pupil must be focused. The formation of focused images on the photoreceptors of the retina depends on the refraction (bending) of light by the cornea and the lens (Figure 11.2). The cornea is responsible for most of the necessary refraction, a contribution easily appreciated by considering the hazy out-of-focus images experienced when swimming underwater. Water, unlike air, has a refractive index close to that of the cornea; as a result, immersion in water virtually eliminates the refraction that normally occurs at the air/cornea interface. The lens has considerably less refractive power than the cornea; however, the refraction supplied by the lens is adjustable, allowing objects at various distances from the observer to be brought into sharp focus on the retinal surface.

Figure 11.2. Diagram showing the anterior part of the human eye in the unaccommodated (left) and accommodated (right) state.

Figure 11.2

Diagram showing the anterior part of the human eye in the unaccommodated (left) and accommodated (right) state. Accommodation for focusing on near objects involves the contraction of the ciliary muscle, which reduces the tension in the zonule fibers and (more...)

Dynamic changes in the refractive power of the lens are referred to as accommodation. When viewing distant objects, the lens is made relatively thin and flat and has the least refractive power. For near vision, the lens becomes thicker and rounder and has the most refractive power (see Figure 11.2). These changes result from the activity of the ciliary muscle that surrounds the lens. The lens is held in place by radially arranged connective tissue bands (called zonule fibers) that are attached to the ciliary muscle. The shape of the lens is thus determined by two opposing forces: the elasticity of the lens, which tends to keep it rounded up (removed from the eye, the lens becomes spheroidal), and the tension exerted by the zonule fibers, which tends to flatten it. When viewing distant objects, the force from the zonule fibers is greater than the elasticity of the lens, and the lens assumes the flatter shape appropriate for distance viewing. Focusing on closer objects requires relaxing the tension in the zonule fibers, allowing the inherent elasticity of the lens to increase its curvature. This relaxation is accomplished by contraction of the ciliary muscle. Because the ciliary muscle forms a ring around the lens, when the muscle contracts, the attachment points of the zonule fibers move toward the central axis of the eye, thus reducing the tension on the lens. Unfortunately, changes in the shape of the lens are not always able to produce a focused image on the retina, in which case a sharp image can be focused only with the help of additional corrective lenses (see Box A).

Adjustments in the size of the pupil (i.e., the circular opening in the iris) also contribute to the clarity of images formed on the retina. Like the images formed by other optical instruments, those generated by the eye are affected by spherical and chromatic aberrations, which tend to blur the retinal image. Since these aberrations are greatest for light rays that pass farthest from the center of the lens, narrowing the pupil reduces both spherical and chromatic aberration, just as closing the iris diaphragm on a camera lens improves the sharpness of a photographic image. Reducing the size of the pupil also increases the depth of field—that is, the distance within which objects are seen without blurring. However, a small pupil also limits the amount of light that reaches the retina, and, under conditions of dim illumination, visual acuity becomes limited by the number of available photons rather than by optical aberrations. An adjustable pupil thus provides an effective means of limiting optical aberrations, while maximizing depth of field to the extent that different levels of illumination permit. The size of the pupil is controlled by innervation from both sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions of the visceral motor system, which are in turn modulated by several brainstem centers (see Chapters 20 and 21).

By agreement with the publisher, this book is accessible by the search feature, but cannot be browsed.

Copyright © 2001, Sinauer Associates, Inc.
Bookshelf ID: NBK11079

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