The retina is a layer of tissue at the back of the eye that plays an incredibly important role in healthy vision. Its main job is to receive the light that is refracted by the eye’s lens, convert it into signals, and send those neural images through the optic nerve to the brain.
To put it more simply, think of your eye as a camera. Light comes in through the lens, the retina creates an image, and then the brain is left to interpret that image. It is a complex system of visual recognition that happens in a nanosecond.
The retina is able to do this remarkable function thanks to a complex system of photo-receptor cells called rods and cones. The less light-sensitive rods are responsible for black and white vision, and enhance our ability to see shapes. The more light-sensitive cones are what provide our colour perception. If you or someone you know is colour-blind, it’s because their eye has many more rods than cones.
You may remember a hot topic from few years ago: a dress that appeared white and gold, or black and blue, depending on the viewer. While it inspired a million internet debates about which was ‘correct’, the truth is, the perception of colour depends on the balance of rods and cones in the viewer’s eye and thus the amount of light-sensitivity we each have. The controversy was all in good fund, but it gives us a good example of how our brain can perceive the information it gets from the retina in different ways.
The centre of the retina is called the macula, which accounts for most of our central vision. The macula’s centre, the fovea, hosts the eye’s highest number of cones, giving it the strongest ability to form images. This is why our vision is at its clearest and most focused when we are looking directly at something. Outside of this central area, other rods and cones provide us with peripheral sight – the ability to see things in the edges of the field of vision.
The images these cells create are compressed and sent along the nerve at the back of the eye, called the optic nerve, to the vision centres in the brain. In fact, the neural retina tissue is actually part of the brain, thus making it part of our central nervous system (CNS).
As we get older, the retinal cells start to deteriorate. This is called age-related macular degeneration, or AMD. Another issue that can affect the retina is retinal detachment (in which the tissue begins to lift away from the back of the eye). Patients with diabetes can be afflicted with diabetic retinopathy.
But even if you are in peak health, it’s important to have your retinas checked as part of a comprehensive eye exam on a regular basis. Your optometrist or ophthalmologist will do a test called an ophthalmoscopy to look at the back of your eye and assess its health. As with many other health issues, early detection is key to giving you the best chance of successful treatment should your eye doctor detect any problems.
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