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Over the past two decades there have been significant advances in our understanding of both the anatomy and function of the melanopsin system. It has become clear that rather than acting as a simple irradiance detector the melanopsin system is in fact far more complicated. The range of behavioural systems known to be influenced by melanopsin activity is increasing with time, and it is now clear that melanopsin contributes not only to multiple non-image forming systems but also has a role in visual pathways. How melanopsin is capable of driving so many different behaviours is unclear, but recent evidence suggests that the answer may lie in the diversity of melanopsin light responses and the functional specialisation of photosensitive retinal ganglion cell (pRGC) subtypes. In this review, we shall overview the current understanding of the melanopsin system, and evaluate the evidence for the hypothesis that individual pRGC subtypes not only perform specific roles, but are functionally specialised to do so. We conclude that while, currently, the available data somewhat support this hypothesis, we currently lack the necessary detail to fully understand how the functional diversity of pRGC subtypes correlates with different behavioural responses, and ultimately why such complexity is required within the melanopsin system. What we are lacking is a cohesive understanding of how light responses differ between the pRGC subtypes (based not only on anatomical classification but also based on their site of innervation); how these diverse light responses are generated, and most importantly how these responses relate to the physiological functions they underpin.

Original publication




Journal article


Eye (Lond)

Publication Date





247 - 254


Animals, Humans, Light, Retinal Ganglion Cells, Rod Opsins, Vision, Ocular, Visual Pathways