The Talking Eye: Understanding the Retina as a Communications System

June 12th, 2018 by Dr. Chad Andrews

Like any part of the human body, the eye only functions when its various parts communicate effectively—when they “talk” to one another, in other words.

In fact, the importance of communication is heightened in the body’s more complex components, and the eye is certainly one of these: we know that vision is the result of an intricate exchange of information linking genes, molecules, and cells in a kind of biological communications system, with each part contributing to the assembly of an accurate picture of the world around us. This is the science of sight.

Since its parts talk to each other quite a bit, the retina is an extremely “noisy” part of the eye; understanding this noise is essential to the development of future treatments for retinal diseases.

No one is more aware of this than Dr. David Picketts, whose research seeks to understand how degenerative vision loss can affect the ability for retinal cells to communicate. With funding from the Foundation Fighting Blindness, he and his team are studying inner retinal neurons, cells that facilitate communication between photoreceptors—the cells that absorb light and translate it into signals that can be interpreted by the brain—and the brain itself. This important work will advance our knowledge of how these cells talk to one another, laying foundations that will ensure future treatments are more effective.

Many vision scientists are developing approaches to halting the death of photoreceptor cells, or even restoring photoreceptors that have already died. And this work is producing amazing results, such as the ocular gene therapy that was approved by the FDA late last year—the first of its kind to come to market.

But studies have shown that when photoreceptors die, other parts of the retina are negatively affected. Photoreceptors are a key part of the biological system that produces vision, so when they begin to degenerate, they don’t talk to the other cells in the eye in the same way, including the inner retinal neurons. This has impacts that we don’t yet fully understand.

We do know, however, that cells don’t die in isolation. Rather, they die within a complex cellular and communicative environment. Knowing how that environment functions will contribute to the development of a full, comprehensive picture of the human eye. And that picture is necessary for the development of cures.

Thankfully, the work being done by Dr. Picketts and his team is advancing our understanding of how the retina’s cells talk to one another. As his work advances, so does our model of the human eye as an integrated system, one that relies on effective communication to work. Thank you to all of the supporters who make this research possible, taking us one step closer to safe and effective treatments.