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J Neurosci. 2003 Aug 6;23(18):7093-106.

A broad role for melanopsin in nonvisual photoreception.

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  • 1Department of Neurology, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston, Massachusetts 02215, USA.


The rod and cone photoreceptors that mediate visual phototransduction in mammals are not required for light-induced circadian entrainment, negative masking of locomotor activity, suppression of pineal melatonin, or the pupillary light reflex. The photopigment melanopsin has recently been identified in intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (RGCs) that project to the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), intergeniculate leaflet (IGL), and olivary pretectal nucleus, suggesting that melanopsin might influence a variety of irradiance-driven responses. We have found novel projections from RGCs that express melanopsin mRNA to the ventral subparaventricular zone (vSPZ), a region involved in circadian regulation and negative masking, and the sleep-active ventrolateral preoptic nucleus (VLPO) and determined the subsets of melanopsin-expressing RGCs that project to the SCN, the pretectal area (PTA), and the IGL division of the lateral geniculate nucleus (LGN). Melanopsin was expressed in the majority of RGCs that project to the SCN, vSPZ, and VLPO and in a subpopulation of RGCs that innervate the PTA and the IGL but not in RGCs projecting to the dorsal LGN or superior colliculus. Two-thirds of RGCs containing melanopsin transcript projected to each of the SCN and contralateral PTA, and one-fifth projected to the ipsilateral IGL. Double-retrograde tracing from the SCN and PTA demonstrated a subpopulation of RGCs projecting to both sites, most of which contained melanopsin mRNA. Our results suggest that melanopsin expression defines a subset of RGCs that play a broad role in the regulation of nonvisual photoreception, providing collateralized projections that contribute to circadian entrainment, negative masking, the regulation of sleep-wake states, and the pupillary light reflex.

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