Visual  transduction  is  the  process  by  which  light  initiates  a  nerve  impulse. The structure of a rod cell is:

The detection of light is  carried out on the membrane disks in the outer segment. These disks contain thousands of molecules of rhodopsin, the photoreceptor                                  molecule. Rhodopsin consists of a membrane-bound protein called opsin and a covalently- bound prosthetic group called retinal. Retinal is made from vitamin A, and a dietary deficiency in this vitamin causes night-blindness (poor vision in dim light). Retinal is the light-sensitive part, and it can exists in 2 forms: a cis  form and a trans form:



In the dark retinal is in the cis form, but when it absorbs a photon of light it quickly switches to the trans form. This changes its shape and therefore the shape of the opsin protein as well. This process is called bleaching. The reverse reaction (trans to cis retinal) requires an enzyme reaction and is very slow, taking a few minutes. This explains why you are initially blind when you walk from sunlight to a dark room: in the light almost all your retinal was in the trans form, and it takes some time to form enough cis retinal to respond to the light indoors.

Rod cell membranes contain a special sodium channel that is controlled by rhodopsin. Rhodopsin with cis retinal opens it and rhodopsin with trans retinal closes it. This means in the dark the channel is open, allowing sodium ions to flow in and causing the rod cell to be depolarised. This in turn means that rod cells release neurotransmitter in the dark!

However the synapse with the bipolar cell is an inhibitory synapse, so the neurotransmitter stops the bipolar cell making a nerve impulse. In the light everything is reversed, and the bipolar cell is depolarised and forms a nerve impulse, which is passed to the ganglion cell and to the brain.

Summary for light;

  1. Photon hits
  2. Bleaching occurs and trans retinal is
  3. Trans retinal blocks Na+
  4. The rod     is    hyperpolarised     and     stops     releasing    inhibitory neurotransmitter.
  5. The bipolar cell is no longer inhibited and
  6. The ganglion cell is activated, which carries the message to the

Cones work in exactly the same way, except that they contain the pigment Iodopsin, which is found in 3 different forms; red-sensitive, blue-sensitive and green-sensitive. This gives us colour vision.