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A New Study in Nature Helps to Explain How Specialized Retinal Cells Help Stabilize Vision

Think of the way that a long flat highway seems to widen out around you from a single point on the horizon, while in the rear-view mirror everything narrows back to a single point behind you. Or think of the way that when a spaceship in a movie accelerates to its “warp” or “hyper” speed, the illusion is conveyed by the stars turning into streaks that zip radially outward off the screen. That’s how a new study in Nature says specialized cells in the retina sense their owner’s motion through the world — by sensing that same radiating flow.

The finding is part of a broader discovery, made in the retinas of mice, that may help explain how mammals keep their vision stable and keep their balance as they move, said senior author David Berson, a professor of neuroscience at Brown University.

The brain needs a way to sense how it is moving in space. Two key systems at the brain’s disposal are the motion-sensing vestibular system in the ears, and vision — specifically, how the image of the world is moving across the retina. The brain integrates information from these two systems, or uses one if the other isn’t available (e.g., in darkness or when motion is seen but not felt, as in an airplane at constant cruising speed).

The National Eye Institute (R01EY12793), the National Science Foundation (Grant: DMS-1148284), the Alcon Research Institute, the Sidney A. Fox and Dorothea Doctors Fox Postdoctoral Fellowship in Ophthalmology, and the Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship of Canada funded the research.


Retina Fig1Ab

Mouse in motion

As a mouse moves forward, optical flow radiates outward from a single point in front and inward
toward a single point in back. When the mouse rotates, optical flow is horizontal all the way around, appearing forward in one eye but backward in the other.
Berson et. al.

“Good cameras have gizmos that stabilize images,” Berson said. “That’s

just what the retinal motion and vestibular systems do for our own eyes."

David Berson, Professor of neuroscience at Brown University

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