Melanopsin-expressing ganglion cells in primate retina signal colour and irradiance and project to the LGN
Human vision starts with the activation of rod photoreceptors in dim light and short (S)-, medium (M)-, and long (L)- wavelength-sensitive cone photoreceptors in daylight. Recently a parallel, non-rod, non-cone photoreceptive pathway, arising from a population of retinal ganglion cells, was discovered in nocturnal rodents. These ganglion cells express the putative photopigment melanopsin and by signalling gross changes in light intensity serve the subconscious, `non-image-forming' functions of circadian photoentrainment and pupil constriction. Here we show an anatomically distinct population of `giant', melanopsin-expressing ganglion cells in the primate retina that, in addition to being intrinsically photosensitive, are strongly activated by rods and cones, and display a rare, S-Off, (L + M)-On type of colour-opponent receptive field. The intrinsic, rod and (L + M) cone-derived light responses combine in these giant cells to signal irradiance over the full dynamic range of human vision. In accordance with cone-based colour opponency, the giant cells project to the lateral geniculate nucleus, the thalamic relay to primary visual cortex. Thus, in the diurnal trichromatic primate, `non-image-forming' and conventional `image-forming' retinal pathways are merged, and the melanopsin-based signal might contribute to conscious visual perception.