Find information on medical topics, symptoms, drugs, procedures, news and more, written in everyday language.

Structure and Function of the Eyes

by James Garrity, MD

The orbit is the bony cavity that contains the eyeball, muscles, nerves, and blood vessels, as well as the structures that produce and drain tears. Each orbit is a pear-shaped structure that is formed by several bones.

An Inside Look at the Eye

The outer covering of the eyeball consists of a relatively tough, white layer called the sclera (or white of the eye). Near the front of the eye, in the area protected by the eyelids, the sclera is covered by a thin, transparent membrane (conjunctiva), which runs to the edge of the cornea. The conjunctiva also covers the moist back surface of the eyelids and eyeballs.

Light enters the eye through the cornea, the clear, curved layer in front of the iris and pupil. The cornea serves as a protective covering for the front of the eye and also helps focus light on the retina at the back of the eye. After passing through the cornea, light travels through the pupil (the black dot in the middle of the eye). The iris—the circular, colored area of the eye that surrounds the pupil—controls the amount of light that enters the eye. The pupil dilates (enlarges) and constricts (shrinks) like the aperture of a camera lens as the amount of light in the immediate surroundings changes. The iris allows more light into the eye when the environment is dark and allows less light into the eye when the environment is bright. The size of the pupil is controlled by the action of the pupillary sphincter muscle and dilator muscle.

Behind the iris sits the lens. By changing its shape, the lens focuses light onto the retina. Through the action of small muscles (called the ciliary muscles), the lens becomes thicker to focus on nearby objects and thinner to focus on distant objects.

The retina contains the cells that sense light (photoreceptors) and the blood vessels that nourish them. The most sensitive part of the retina is a small area called the macula, which has millions of tightly packed photoreceptors (the type called cones). The high density of cones in the macula makes the visual image detailed, just as a high-resolution digital camera has more megapixels. Each photoreceptor is linked to a nerve fiber. The nerve fibers from the photoreceptors are bundled together to form the optic nerve. The optic disk, the first part of the optic nerve, is at the back of the eye. The photoreceptors in the retina convert the image into electrical signals, which are carried to the brain by the optic nerve.

There are two main types of photoreceptors: cones and rods. Cones are responsible for sharp, detailed central vision and color vision and are clustered mainly in the macula. The rods are responsible for night and peripheral (side) vision. Rods are more numerous than cones and much more sensitive to light, but they do not register color or contribute to detailed central vision as the cones do. Rods are grouped mainly in the peripheral areas of the retina.

Tracing the Visual Pathways

Nerve signals travel from each eye along the corresponding optic nerve and other nerve fibers (called the visual pathway) to the back of the brain, where vision is sensed and interpreted. The two optic nerves meet at the optic chiasm, which is an area behind the eyes immediately in front of the pituitary gland and just below the front portion of the brain (cerebrum). The optic nerve from each eye divides in the optic chiasm. Half of the nerve fibers from each side cross to the other side and continue to the back of the brain. Thus, the right side of the brain receives information through both optic nerves for the left field of vision, and the left side of the brain receives information through both optic nerves for the right field of vision. The middle of these fields of vision overlaps. It is seen by both eyes (called binocular vision).

An object is seen from slightly different angles by each eye, so the information the brain receives from each eye is different, although it overlaps. The brain integrates the information to produce a complete picture. This process is the basis of stereo vision or depth perception.

The eyeball is divided into two sections, each of which is filled with fluid. The front section (anterior segment) extends from the inside of the cornea to the front surface of the lens. It is filled with a fluid called the aqueous humor, which nourishes the internal structures. The back section (posterior segment) extends from the back surface of the lens to the retina. It contains a jellylike fluid called the vitreous humor. The pressure generated by these fluids fills out the eyeball and helps maintain its shape.

The anterior segment is divided into two chambers. The front (anterior) chamber extends from the cornea to the iris. The back (posterior) chamber extends from the iris to the lens. Normally, the aqueous humor is produced in the posterior chamber, flows slowly through the pupil into the anterior chamber, and then drains out of the eyeball through outflow channels located where the iris meets the cornea.

Resources In This Article