Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Eye Didn’t See That

By Evan Hovey

A grandmother and her grandson watching the television.
The elder is straining to see while the young man is not having any troubles.
Photo by Evan Hovey.

It’s Thanksgiving and the family just finished stuffing their faces full of turkey and cranberry fluff. Everyone meanders into the living room to sit down, let the tryptophan sink in, and watch some football. As you sit there, you start to observe the older family members around you take out their glasses or bifocals and squint towards the television in attempts to see what is going on. You begin to ponder the thought, “am I going to start to lose my eye sight as well?” Well, as it turns out, as you age, the number of cells that respond to light and color (called photoreceptors) begins to decrease.

Songhomitra Panda-Jonas, Jost Jonas, and Martha Jakobczyk-Zmija at the University of Erlangen-Nurnberg, Germany, looked into the number of photoreceptors in the retina of the eye to determine whether there was a loss as you age. The retina is the thin layer of tissue that lines the back of the eye. It is the location where your eye transfers what you see to the brain. There are two different kinds of photoreceptors in your eyes: rods and cones. Rods are those that detect light at low levels, which is what helps us see at night. Cones, on the contrary, are those that take in high light levels and help decode color. The authors believed that there would be a decrease in both kinds of photoreceptors as the eye got older (the older the person, the fewer photoreceptors). They came up with this hypothesis in part because of prior knowledge of a loss of tissue associated with vision in other parts of the eye as you age.

The researchers approached this study by obtaining fifty-five eyes from human donors that died at ages ranging from 18-85. The eyes were removed from the bodies less than eleven hours after death. Then the eyes were cut open and tissue samples from the retina were obtained. To determine the amount of photoreceptors in the tissue samples, the researchers used an ultrasound to view the retina and counted the photoreceptors on a photograph taken with the ultrasound. The two different kinds of cells were distinguished by their sizes (the larger cells were the cones and the smaller cells were the rods).

The results they found were as expected: the older you get, the fewer photoreceptors you have and the worse your eyesight is. The decline of the number of photoreceptors was at a constant rate throughout all ages of life. However, the number of rods declined faster than the number of cones. The loss of these photoreceptors causes you to view things with more difficulty. As your rods die, you begin to develop night blindness (the inability to see well in poor lighting or darkness). When your cones die, you begin to lose more of your visual perception, which includes straining when looking at something from a distance, as well as affecting how you see fine detail such as reading a book or looking at a television. The combined loss of your rods and cones is part of what causes older individuals to have more vision problems.

As you progress through life, your photoreceptors decline, causing your vision to get worse. As you sit down after Thanksgiving to enjoy some good old-fashioned fall football and the elderly people strain to see the television, you now know that the oldest person in your family is most likely having the hardest time seeing that big touchdown.

If you would like to read the actual paper, the source is located below:

Panda-Jonas, S., Jonas J., Jakobczyk-Zmija, M. (1995). Retinal photoreceptor density decreases with age: Ophthalmology, 102 (12), 1853-1859

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