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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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Central Projections of Retinal Ganglion Cells

Ganglion cell axons exit the retina through a circular region in its nasal part called the optic disk (or optic papilla), where they bundle together to form the optic nerve. This region of the retina contains no photoreceptors and, because it is insensitive to light, produces the perceptual phenomenon known as the blind spot (Box A). The optic disk is easily identified as a whitish circular area when the retina is examined with an ophthalmoscope; it also is recognized as the site from which the ophthalmic artery and veins enter (or leave) the eye (Figure 12.1). In addition to being a conspicuous retinal landmark, the appearance of the optic disk is a useful gauge of intracranial pressure. The subarachnoid space surrounding the optic nerve is continuous with that of the brain; as a result, increases in intracranial pressure—a sign of serious neurological problems such as a space-occupying lesion—can be detected as a swelling of the optic disk (called papilledema).

Box Icon

Box A

The Blind Spot. It is logical to suppose that a visual field defect (called a scotoma) arising from damage to the retina or central visual pathways would be obvious to the individual suffering from such pathology. When the deficit involves a peripheral (more...)

Figure 12.1. The retinal surface of the right eye, viewed with an ophthalmoscope.

Figure 12.1

The retinal surface of the right eye, viewed with an ophthalmoscope. The optic disk is the region where the ganglion cell axons leave the retina to form the optic nerve; it is also characterized by the entrance and exit, respectively, of the ophthalmic (more...)

Axons in the optic nerve run a straight course to the optic chiasm at the base of the diencephalon. In humans, about 60% of these fibers cross in the chiasm, while the other 40% continue toward the thalamus and midbrain targets on the same side. Once past the chiasm, the ganglion cell axons on each side form the optic tract. Thus, the optic tract, unlike the optic nerve, contains fibers from both eyes. The partial crossing (or decussation) of ganglion cell axons at the optic chiasm allows information from corresponding points on the two retinas to be processed by approximately the same cortical site in each hemisphere, an important issue that is considered in the next section.

The ganglion cell axons in the optic tract reach a number of structures in the diencephalon and midbrain (Figure 12.2). The major target in the diencephalon is the dorsal lateral geniculate nucleus of the thalamus. Neurons in the lateral geniculate nucleus, like their counterparts in the thalamic relays of other sensory systems, send their axons to the cerebral cortex via the internal capsule. These axons pass through a portion of the internal capsule called the optic radiation and terminate in the primary visual (or striate) cortex (also referred to as Brodmann's area 17 or V1), which lies largely along and within the calcarine fissure in the occipital lobe. The retinogeniculostriate pathway, or primary visual pathway, conveys information that is essential for most of what is thought of as seeing. Thus, damage anywhere along this route results in serious visual impairment.

Figure 12.2. Central projections of retinal ganglion cells.

Figure 12.2

Central projections of retinal ganglion cells. Ganglion cell axons terminate in the lateral geniculate nucleus of the thalamus, the superior colliculus, the pretectum, and the hypothalamus. For clarity, only the crossing axons of the right eye are shown. (more...)

A second major target of the ganglion cell axons is a collection of neurons that lies between the thalamus and the midbrain in a region known as the pretectum. Although small in size compared to the lateral geniculate nucleus, the pretectum is particularly important as the coordinating center for the pupillary light reflex (i.e., the reduction in the diameter of the pupil that occurs when sufficient light falls on the retina) (Figure 12.3). The initial component of the pupillary light reflex pathway is a bilateral projection from the retina to the pretectum. Pretectal neurons, in turn, project to the Edinger-Westphal nucleus, a small group of nerve cells that lies close to the nucleus of the oculomotor nerve (cranial nerve III) in the midbrain. The Edinger-Westphal nucleus contains the preganglionic parasympathetic neurons that send their axons via the oculomotor nerve to terminate on neurons in the ciliary ganglion (see Chapter 20). Neurons in the ciliary ganglion innervate the constrictor muscle in the iris, which decreases the diameter of the pupil when activated. Shining light in the eye thus leads to an increase in the activity of pretectal neurons, which stimulates the Edinger-Westphal neurons and the ciliary ganglion neurons they innervate, thus constricting the pupil.

Figure 12.3. The circuitry responsible for the pupillary light reflex.

Figure 12.3

The circuitry responsible for the pupillary light reflex. This pathway includes bilateral projections from the retina to the pretectum and projections from the pretectum to the Edinger-Westphal nucleus. Neurons in the Edinger-Westphal nucleus terminate (more...)

In addition to its normal role in regulating the amount of light that enters the eye, the pupillary reflex provides an important diagnostic tool that allows the physician to test the integrity of the visual sensory apparatus, the motor outflow to the pupillary muscles, and the central pathways that mediate the reflex. Under normal conditions, the pupils of both eyes respond identically, regardless of which eye is stimulated; that is, light in one eye produces constriction of both the stimulated eye (the direct response) and the unstimulated eye (the consensual response; see Figure 12.3). Comparing the response in the two eyes is often helpful in localizing a lesion. For example, a direct response in the left eye without a consensual response in the right eye suggests a problem with the visceral motor outflow to the right eye, possibly damage to the oculomotor nerve or Edinger-Westphal nucleus in the brainstem. Failure to elicit a response (either direct or indirect) to stimulation of the left eye if both eyes respond normally to stimulation of the right eye suggests damage to the sensory input from the left eye, possibly to the left retina or optic nerve.

There are two other important targets of retinal ganglion cell axons. One is the suprachiasmatic nucleus of the hypothalamus, a small group of neurons at the base of the diencephalon (see Figure 28.4). The retinohypothalamic pathway is the route by which variation in light levels influences the broad spectrum of visceral functions that are entrained to the day/night cycle (see Chapters 21 and 28). The other target is the superior colliculus, a prominent structure visible on the dorsal surface of the midbrain (see Figure 1.14). The superior colliculus coordinates head and eye movements; its functions are considered in Chapter 20.

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Copyright © 2001, Sinauer Associates, Inc.
Bookshelf ID: NBK11145


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