Dark adaptation, demonstrating the relation of cone adaptation to rod adaptation.
The resulting curve of Figure 50-8 is called the dark adaptation curve. Note, however, the inflection in the curve. The early portion of the curve is caused by adaptation of the cones, because all the chemical events of vision, including adaptation, occur about four times as rapidly in cones as in rods. However, the cones do not achieve anywhere near the same degree of sensitivity change in darkness as the rods do. Therefore, despite rapid adaptation, the cones cease adapting after only a few minutes, while the slowly adapting rods continue to adapt for many minutes and even hours, their sensitivity increasing tremendously. In addition, still more sensitivity of the rods is caused by neuronal signal convergence of 100 or more rods onto a single ganglion cell in the retina; these rods summate to increase their sensitivity, as discussed later in the chapter.
Other Mechanisms of Light and Dark Adaptation. In addition to adaptation caused by changes in concentrations of rhodopsin or color photochemicals, the eye has two other mechanisms for light and dark adaptation. The first of these is a change in pupillary size, as discussed in Chapter 49. This can cause adaptation of approximately 30-fold within a fraction of a second, because of changes in the amount of light allowed through the pupillary opening.
The other mechanism is neural adaptation, involving the neurons in the successive stages of the visual chain in the retina itself and in the brain. That is, when light intensity first increases, the signals transmitted by the bipolar cells, horizontal cells, amacrine cells, and ganglion cells are all intense. However, most of these signals decrease rapidly at different stages of transmission in the neural circuit. Although the degree of adaptation is only a fewfold rather than the many thousandfold that occurs during adaptation of the photochemical system, neural adaptation occurs in a fraction of a second, in contrast to the many minutes to hours required for full adaptation by the photochemicals.
Value of Light and Dark Adaptation in Vision. Between the limits of maximal dark adaptation and maximal light adaptation, the eye can change its sensitivity to light as much as 500,000 to 1 million times, the sensitivity automatically adjusting to changes in illumination.
Because registration of images by the retina requires detection of both dark and light spots in the image, it is essential that the sensitivity of the retina always be adjusted so that the receptors respond to the lighter areas but not to the darker areas. An example of maladjustment of retinal adaptation occurs when a person leaves a movie theater and enters the bright sunlight. Then, even the dark spots in the images seem exceedingly bright, and as a consequence, the entire visual image is bleached, having little contrast among its different parts. This is poor vision, and it remains poor until the retina has adapted sufficiently so that the darker areas of the image no longer stimulate the receptors excessively.
Conversely, when a person first enters darkness, the sensitivity of the retina is usually so slight that even the light spots in the image cannot excite the retina. After dark adaptation, the light spots begin to register. As an example of the extremes of light and dark adaptation, the intensity of sunlight is about 10 billion times that of starlight, yet the eye can function both in bright sunlight after light adaptation and in starlight after dark adaptation.
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