Prolonged Inner Retinal Photoreception Depends on the Visual Retinoid Cycle

J Neurosci. 2016 Apr 13;36(15):4209-17. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2629-14.2016.


In addition to rods and cones, mammals have inner retinal photoreceptors called intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (ipRGCs), which use the photopigment melanopsin and mediate nonimage-forming visual responses, such as pupil reflexes and circadian entrainment. After photic activation, photopigments must be reverted to their dark state to be light-sensitive again. For rods and to some extent cones, photopigment regeneration depends on the retinoid cycle in the adjacent retinal pigment epithelium (RPE). By contrast, ipRGCs are far from the RPE, and previous work suggests that melanopsin is capable of light-dependent self-regeneration. Here, we used in vitro ipRGC recording and in vivo pupillometry to show that the RPE is required for normal melanopsin-based responses to prolonged light, especially at high stimulus intensities. Melanopsin-based photoresponses of rat ipRGCs were remarkably sustained when a functional RPE was attached to the retina, but became far more transient if the RPE was removed, or if the retinoid cycle was inhibited, or when Müller glia were poisoned. Similarly, retinoid cycle inhibition markedly reduced the steady-state amplitude of melanopsin-driven pupil reflexes in both mice and rats. However, melanopsin photoresponses in RPE-separated rat retinas became more sustained in the presence of an 11-cis-retinal analog. In conclusion, during prolonged illumination, melanopsin regeneration depends partly on 11-cis-retinal from the RPE, possibly imported via Müller cells. Implications for RPE-related eye diseases and the acne drug isotretinoin (a retinoid cycle inhibitor) are discussed.

Significance statement: Intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (ipRGCs) contain the photopigment melanopsin and drive subconscious physiological responses to light, e.g., pupillary constriction and neuroendocrine regulation. In darkness, each photopigment molecule in ipRGCs, as well as rod/cone photoreceptors, contains 11-cis-retinal (a vitamin A derivative) and light isomerizes it to all-trans-retinal, which activates the photopigment. To make this photopigment excitable again,all-trans-retinal must be reisomerized to 11-cis-retinal. For rods and to some extent cones, this reisomerization occurs in the adjacent retinal pigment epithelium (RPE), but because ipRGCs are far from the RPE, they are thought to regenerate excitable melanopsin exclusively through RPE-independent means. Here, we present electrophysiological and behavioral evidence that ipRGCs depend on the RPE to continuously regenerate melanopsin during intense prolonged photostimulation.

Keywords: RPE; melanopsin; retina.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Electroretinography
  • Isotretinoin / pharmacology
  • Mice
  • Neuroglia / drug effects
  • Neuroglia / physiology
  • Patch-Clamp Techniques
  • Photoreceptor Cells, Vertebrate / drug effects
  • Photoreceptor Cells, Vertebrate / metabolism*
  • Rats
  • Rats, Long-Evans
  • Reflex, Pupillary / drug effects
  • Reflex, Pupillary / physiology
  • Retina / cytology
  • Retina / drug effects
  • Retina / physiology*
  • Retinal Cone Photoreceptor Cells / drug effects
  • Retinal Cone Photoreceptor Cells / physiology
  • Retinal Rod Photoreceptor Cells / drug effects
  • Retinal Rod Photoreceptor Cells / physiology
  • Retinaldehyde / metabolism
  • Retinoids / metabolism*
  • Rod Opsins / metabolism


  • Retinoids
  • Rod Opsins
  • melanopsin
  • Isotretinoin
  • Retinaldehyde