Dark adaptation and the retinoid cycle of vision

Prog Retin Eye Res. 2004 May;23(3):307-80. doi: 10.1016/j.preteyeres.2004.03.001.


Following exposure of our eye to very intense illumination, we experience a greatly elevated visual threshold, that takes tens of minutes to return completely to normal. The slowness of this phenomenon of "dark adaptation" has been studied for many decades, yet is still not fully understood. Here we review the biochemical and physical processes involved in eliminating the products of light absorption from the photoreceptor outer segment, in recycling the released retinoid to its original isomeric form as 11-cis retinal, and in regenerating the visual pigment rhodopsin. Then we analyse the time-course of three aspects of human dark adaptation: the recovery of psychophysical threshold, the recovery of rod photoreceptor circulating current, and the regeneration of rhodopsin. We begin with normal human subjects, and then analyse the recovery in several retinal disorders, including Oguchi disease, vitamin A deficiency, fundus albipunctatus, Bothnia dystrophy and Stargardt disease. We review a large body of evidence showing that the time-course of human dark adaptation and pigment regeneration is determined by the local concentration of 11-cis retinal, and that after a large bleach the recovery is limited by the rate at which 11-cis retinal is delivered to opsin in the bleached rod outer segments. We present a mathematical model that successfully describes a wide range of results in human and other mammals. The theoretical analysis provides a simple means of estimating the relative concentration of free 11-cis retinal in the retina/RPE, in disorders exhibiting slowed dark adaptation, from analysis of psychophysical measurements of threshold recovery or from analysis of pigment regeneration kinetics.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Dark Adaptation / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Retinal Diseases / metabolism
  • Retinoids / physiology*
  • Rhodopsin / physiology
  • Rod Cell Outer Segment / physiology
  • Vision, Ocular / physiology*


  • Retinoids
  • Rhodopsin