The pupillary light reflex (PLR) or photopupillary reflex is a reflex that controls the diameter of the pupil, in response to the intensity (luminance) of light that falls on the retinal ganglion cells of the retina in the back of the eye, thereby assisting in adaptation to various levels of lightness/darkness. A greater intensity of light causes the pupil to constrict (miosis/myosis; thereby allowing less light in), whereas a lower intensity of light causes the pupil to dilate (mydriasis, expansion; thereby allowing more light in). Thus, the pupillary light reflex regulates the intensity of light entering the eye. Light shone into one eye will cause both pupils to constrict.
Pupil is the dark circular opening in the center of the iris and is where light enters the eye. Based on analogy with a camera, pupil is equivalent to aperture, whereas iris is equivalent to shutter. Pupillary reflex should have been named iris reflex, because iris is the actual muscular structure that responds to light and pupil is merely the passive opening formed by the active iris. Pupillary reflex is synonymous with pupillary response, which may be pupillary constriction or dilation. Pupillary reflex is conceptually linked to the side (left or right) of the reacting pupil, and not to the side from which light stimulation originates. Left pupillary reflex refers to the response of the left pupil to light, regardless of which eye is exposed to a light source. Right pupillary reflex means reaction of the right pupil, whether light is shone into the left eye, right eye, or both eyes. In contrast, the terms direct and consensual refers to the side where the light source comes from, relative to the side of the reacting pupil. A direct pupillary reflex is pupillary response to light that enters the ipsilateral (same) eye. A consensual pupillary reflex is response of a pupil to light that enters the contralateral (opposite) eye. Thus there are four types of pupillary light reflexes, based on this terminology of absolute (left versus right) and relative (same side versus opposite side) laterality:
The pupillary light reflex neural pathway on each side has an afferent limb and two efferent limbs. The afferent limb has nerve fibers running within the optic nerve (CN II). Each efferent limb has nerve fibers running along the oculomotor nerve (CN III). The afferent limb carries sensory input. Anatomically, the afferent limb consists of the retina, the optic nerve, and the pretectal nucleus in the midbrain, at level of superior colliculus. Ganglion cells of the retina project fibers through the optic nerve to the ipsilateral pretectal nucleus. The efferent limb is the pupillary motor output from the pretectal nucleus to the ciliary sphincter muscle of the iris. The pretectal nucleus projects crossed and uncrossed fibers to the ipsilateral and contralateral Edinger-Westphal nuclei, which are also located in the midbrain. Each Edinger-Westphal nucleus gives rise to preganglionic parasympathetic fibers which exit with CN III and synapse with postganglionic parasympathetic neurons in the ciliary ganglion. Postganglionic nerve fibers leave the ciliary ganglion to innervate the ciliary sphincter. Each afferent limb has two efferent limbs, one ipsilateral and one contralateral. The ipsilateral efferent limb transmits nerve signals for direct light reflex of the ipsilateral pupil. The contralateral efferent limb causes consensual light reflex of the contralateral pupil.
The optic nerve, or more precisely, the photosensitive ganglion cells through the retinohypothalamic tract, is responsible for the afferent limb of the pupillary reflex; it senses the incoming light. The oculomotor nerve is responsible for the efferent limb of the pupillary reflex; it drives the iris muscles that constrict the pupil.
The pupillary response to light is not purely reflexive, but is modulated by cognitive factors, such as attention, awareness, and the way visual input is interpreted. For example, if a bright stimulus is presented to one eye, and a dark stimulus to the other eye, perception alternates between the two eyes (i.e., binocular rivalry): Sometimes the dark stimulus is perceived, sometimes the bright stimulus, but never both at the same time. Using this technique, it has been shown the pupil is smaller when a bright stimulus dominates awareness, relative to when a dark stimulus dominates awareness. This shows that the pupillary light reflex is modulated by visual awareness. Similarly, it has been shown that the pupil constricts when you covertly (i.e., without looking at) pay attention to a bright stimulus, compared to a dark stimulus, even when visual input is identical. Moreover, the magnitude of the pupil light reflex following a distracting probe is strongly correlated with the extent to which the probe captures visual attention and interferes with task performance. This shows that the pupillary light reflex is modulated by visual attention and trial-by-trial variation in visual attention. Finally, a picture that is subjectively perceived as bright (e.g. a picture of the sun), elicits a stronger pupillary constriction than an image that is perceived as less bright (e.g. a picture of an indoor scene), even when the objective brightness of both images is equal. This shows that the pupillary light reflex is modulated by subjective (as opposed to objective) brightness.
Referring to the neural pathway schematic diagram, the entire pupillary light reflex system can be visualized as having eight neural segments, numbered 1 through 8. Odd-numbered segments 1, 3, 5, and 7 are on the left. Even-numbered segments 2, 4, 6, and 8 are on the right. Segments 3 and 4 are cross-over nerve fibers that occupy essentially the same space in the midbrain. Segments 3, 4, 5, and 6 are all located within a compact region within the midbrain.
The diagram may assist in localizing lesion within the pupillary reflex system by process of elimination, using light reflex testing results obtained by clinical examination.
In addition to controlling the amount of light that enters the eye, the pupillary light reflex provides a useful diagnostic tool. It allows for testing the integrity of the sensory and motor functions of the eye.
Under normal conditions, the pupils of both eyes respond identically to a light stimulus, regardless of which eye is being stimulated. Light entering one eye produces a constriction of the pupil of that eye, the direct response, as well as a constriction of the pupil of the unstimulated eye, the consensual response. Comparing these two responses in both eyes is helpful in locating a lesion.
For example, a direct response in the right pupil without a consensual response in the left pupil suggests a problem with the motor connection to the left pupil (perhaps as a result of damage to the oculomotor nerve or Edinger-Westphal nucleus of the brainstem). Lack of response to light stimulation of the right eye if both eyes respond normally to stimulation of the left eye indicates damage to the sensory input from the right eye (perhaps to the right retina or optic nerve).
Emergency room physicians routinely assess the pupillary reflex because it is useful for assessing brain stem function. Normally, pupils react (i.e., constrict) equally. Lack of the pupillary reflex or an abnormal pupillary reflex can be caused by optic nerve damage, oculomotor nerve damage, brain stem death and depressant drugs, such as barbiturates.
For normal pupillary light reflex, both pupils constrict simultaneously when light is shone into either eye. For example, if light is shone into left eye only, left pupil constriction is a direct pupillary light reflex, and simultaneous right pupil constriction is a consensual pupillary light reflex. Therefore, light shone into one eye causes ipsilateral direct pupillary light reflex and contralateral consensual pupillary light reflex. On testing light reflex for each eye, several patterns are possible.
For example, in a person with abnormal left direct reflex and abnormal right consensual reflex (with normal left consensual and normal right direct reflexes), which would produce a left Marcus Gunn pupil, or what is called afferent pupillary defect, by physical examination:
Pupillary light reflex is modeled as a physiologically-based non-linear delay differential equation that describes the changes in the pupil diameter as a function of the environment lighting:
where is the pupil diameter measured in millimeters and is the luminous intensity reaching the retina in a time , which can be described as : luminance reaching the eye in lumens/mm2 times the pupil area in mm2. is the pupillary latency, a time delay between the instant in which the light pulse reaches the retina and the beginning of iridal reaction due nerve transmission, neuro-muscular excitation and activation delays. , and are the derivatives for the function, pupil diameter and time .
Since the pupil constriction velocity is approximately 3 times faster than (re)dilation velocity, different step sizes in the numerical solver simulation must be used:
where and are respectively the for constriction and dilation measured in milliseconds, and are respectively the current and previous simulation times (times since the simulation started) measured in milliseconds, is a constant that affects the constriction/dilation velocity and varies among individuals. The higher the value, the smaller the time step used in the simulation and, consequently, the smaller the pupil constriction/dilation velocity.
In order to improve the realism of the resulting simulations, the hippus effect can be approximated by adding small random variations to the environment light (in the range 0.05–0.3 Hz).
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