When the Baltimore Orioles’ Adam Jones makes a great catch — a feat the Gold Glove centerfielder accomplishes on a regular basis — he isn’t thinking about his retinas. But in the five seconds it takes a baseball to leave an opponent’s bat and reach Jones’ glove, his retinas are processing an enormous amount of real-time visual information — continual changes in the contrast, velocity and trajectory of the ball as it rockets out of the infield, reaches high into the stadium lights (or the sun) and descends into the outfield.
We Orioles fans appreciate that Adam isn’t marveling at how well his eyes are tracking the ball during its quick, 300-foot journey. That, of course, might distract him from catching it.
But for many researchers fighting blindness, understanding the complex process of vision, and how the retina makes it possible, is their game.
Take, for example, Erika Ellis, a medical student at the University of California, San Diego, and Howard Hughes Medical Institute research fellow, who is receiving a one-year career development award from FFB to study retinal ganglion cells. Erika will be researching how these cells refine and package visual information and send it through the optic nerve to the brain, where the final images are created and interpreted.
While the process of seeing begins when photoreceptors convert light into electrical signals, it’s up to many other types of downstream retinal cells — including ganglion, amacrine and bipolar cells — to contextualize and enhance the signals so we can perceive motion, contrast, edges and boundaries and other visual details.
Researchers like Erika are particularly interested in how ganglion cells map to different regions of the brain. There are approximately one million axons — fibers in the optic nerve — connecting the retina’s ganglion cells to the brain, so the task is daunting. But documenting the brain-retina relationship will enable experts to better understand how they work together and how well emerging retinal treatments are restoring vision.
Ganglion cells are also an attractive target for vision-restoring treatments, because they survive long after photoreceptors degenerate from diseases like retinitis pigmentosa and macular degeneration. Emerging optogenetic therapies are designed to empower ganglion cells to respond to light, so they can function somewhat like photoreceptors and restore vision. While their research is at an early stage, it holds promise for people who have lost their photoreceptors to the most advanced retinal conditions.
If you are interested in learning more about ganglion cells, optogenetics and the Foundation’s diverse research portfolio, there’s still time to register for our VISIONS 2013 conference, taking place in Baltimore June 27-30. You’ll also get the opportunity to meet nearly 50 of the Foundation’s research all–stars.
And if you happen to be a baseball fan, the Yankees are also in town that weekend, playing at Camden Yards, right down the road from the conference hotel. Come root for Oriole standouts like Adam, Chris Davis, Manny Machado, Matt Wieters and Nick Markakis. The Yankees have some players as well, but I can’t recall who they are.
Pictured, top, Baltimore Orioles centerfielder, and Golden Glove recipient, Adam Jones; and, above, HHMI-FFB Medical Fellow Erika Ellis.