Anatomy of the Eye


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The left illustration shows a human eye, which is round and filled with vitreous humour. The optic nerve and retinal blood vessels exit the back of the eye. At the front of the eye is the lens with a pupil in the middle. The lens is covered by the iris, which in turn is covered by the cornea, which is a convex bump protruding from the eye. The aqueous humour is a gel-like substance between the cornea and iris. The retina is the lining of the inner eye. A second illustration is a blowup which shows that the optic nerve is at the surface of the retina. Beneath the optic nerve is a layer of ganglion cells, and beneath this is a layer of bipolar cells. Both ganglia and bipolar cells are nerve cells with root-like appendages. Beneath the bipolar cell layer are the rods and cones. Rods and cones are similar in structure and column-like.
(a) The human eye is shown in cross section. (b) A blowup shows the layers of the retina. Source: OpenStax Biology 2e

OpenStax Biology 2e

The photoreceptive cells of the eye, where transduction of light to nervous impulses occurs, are located in the retina on the inner surface of the back of the eye. But light does not impinge on the retina unaltered. It passes through other layers that process it so that it can be interpreted by the retina. The cornea, the front transparent layer of the eye, and the crystalline lens, a transparent convex structure behind the cornea, both refract (bend) light to focus the image on the retina. The iris, which is conspicuous as the colored part of the eye, is a circular muscular ring lying between the lens and cornea that regulates the amount of light entering the eye. In conditions of high ambient light, the iris contracts, reducing the size of the pupil at its center. In conditions of low light, the iris relaxes and the pupil enlarges.

The main function of the lens is to focus light on the retina and fovea centralis. The lens is dynamic, focusing and re-focusing light as the eye rests on near and far objects in the visual field. The lens is operated by muscles that stretch it flat or allow it to thicken, changing the focal length of light coming through it to focus it sharply on the retina. With age comes the loss of the flexibility of the lens, and a form of farsightedness called presbyopia results. Presbyopia occurs because the image focuses behind the retina. Presbyopia is a deficit similar to a different type of farsightedness called hyperopia caused by an eyeball that is too short. For both defects, images in the distance are clear but images nearby are blurry. Myopia (nearsightedness) occurs when an eyeball is elongated and the image focus falls in front of the retina. In this case, images in the distance are blurry but images nearby are clear.

There are two types of photoreceptors in the retina: rods and cones, named for their general appearance. Rods are strongly photosensitive and are located in the outer edges of the retina. They detect dim light and are used primarily for peripheral and nighttime vision. Cones are weakly photosensitive and are located near the center of the retina. They respond to bright light, and their primary role is in daytime, color vision.

This illustration shows that rods and cones are both long, column-like cells with the nucleus located in the bottom portion. The rod is longer than the cone. The outer segment of the rod contains rhodopsin. The outer segment of the cone contains other photo-pigments. An oil droplet is located beneath the outer segment.
Rods and cones are photoreceptors in the retina. Rods respond in low light and can detect only shades of gray. Cones respond in intense light and are responsible for color vision. (credit: modification of work by Piotr Sliwa)

The fovea is the region in the center back of the eye that is responsible for acute vision. The fovea has a high density of cones. When you bring your gaze to an object to examine it intently in bright light, the eyes orient so that the object’s image falls on the fovea. However, when looking at a star in the night sky or other object in dim light, the object can be better viewed by the peripheral vision because it is the rods at the edges of the retina, rather than the cones at the center, that operate better in low light. In humans, cones far outnumber rods in the fovea.


Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at:

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