Scientists dive deep into how the brain processes vision

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How is the retina formed? And how do neurons differentiate to become individual components of the visual system? By focusing on the early stages of this complex process, researchers at the University of Geneva (UNIGE), Switzerland, in collaboration with the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), have identified the genetic programmes governing the birth of different types of retinal cells and their capacity to wire to the correct part of the brain, where they transmit visual information. In addition, the discovery of several genes regulating nerve growth allows for the possibility of a boost to optic nerve regeneration in the event of neurodegenerative disease.

The visual system of mammals is composed of different types of neurons, each of which must find its place in the brain to enable it to transform stimuli received by the eye into images. There are photoreceptors, which detect light, optic nerve neurons, which send information to the brain, cortical neurons, which form images, or interneurons, which make connections between other cells. Though not yet differentiated in the early stages of embryonic development, these neurons are all produced by progenitor cells that, are capable of giving rise to different categories of specialized neurons.

Related article:  Using AI to understand biological vision is another step toward engineering artificial brains

In collaboration with Gioele La Manno and Marion Leleu of EPFL, the researchers studied progenitor’s behaviour during the cell cycle as well as during their progressive differentiation. The scientists then mapped very accurately the different cell types of the developing retina and the genetic changes that occur during the early stages of this process.

Even before the neurons reach the brain, they must leave the retina through the optic nerve. The last part of this study identified the molecules that guide neurons on the right path. Moreover, these same molecules also allow the initial growth of axons, the part of neurons that transmits electrical signals to the synapses and thus ensures the passage of information from one neuron to another, as well as about twenty genes that control this process. This discovery is a fundamental step forward for regenerative medicine. The more we know about the molecules needed to appropriately guide axons, the more likely we are to develop a therapy to treat nerves trauma.

Read full, original post: The birth of vision, from the retina to the brain

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