Intrinsically Photosensitive Retinal Ganglion Cells of the Human Retina

Front Neurol. 2021 Mar 25;12:636330. doi: 10.3389/fneur.2021.636330. eCollection 2021.


Light profoundly affects our mental and physical health. In particular, light, when not delivered at the appropriate time, may have detrimental effects. In mammals, light is perceived not only by rods and cones but also by a subset of retinal ganglion cells that express the photopigment melanopsin that renders them intrinsically photosensitive (ipRGCs). ipRGCs participate in contrast detection and play critical roles in non-image-forming vision, a set of light responses that include circadian entrainment, pupillary light reflex (PLR), and the modulation of sleep/alertness, and mood. ipRGCs are also found in the human retina, and their response to light has been characterized indirectly through the suppression of nocturnal melatonin and PLR. However, until recently, human ipRGCs had rarely been investigated directly. This gap is progressively being filled as, over the last years, an increasing number of studies provided descriptions of their morphology, responses to light, and gene expression. Here, I review the progress in our knowledge of human ipRGCs, in particular, the different morphological and functional subtypes described so far and how they match the murine subtypes. I also highlight questions that remain to be addressed. Investigating ipRGCs is critical as these few cells play a major role in our well-being. Additionally, as ipRGCs display increased vulnerability or resilience to certain disorders compared to conventional RGCs, a deeper knowledge of their function could help identify therapeutic approaches or develop diagnostic tools. Overall, a better understanding of how light is perceived by the human eye will help deliver precise light usage recommendations and implement light-based therapeutic interventions to improve cognitive performance, mood, and life quality.

Keywords: intrinsically photosensitive ganglion cell; melanopsin (OPN4); non-visual responses to light; retina; retinal ganglion cell.

Publication types

  • Review