Australian scientists have shed new light on how our vision works. The findings could lead to the development of new tests for eye diseases such as glaucoma.

Colour-sensing cells in the retina of primates were previously thought to be part of ‘channels’ responding to specific colours. But new research has revealed they also respond to black-and-white and moving objects too.

Dr. Maziar Hashemi-Nezhad made the discovery during his PhD research at the University of Sydney. He performed an unplanned experiment to test whether colour-sensing cells would respond to a moving pattern.

“He saw an immediate response,” ABC Science quoted lead researcher Paul Martin as saying.

Mr. Martin’s team followed up the experiment by measuring the response of blue-sensing cells to moving patterns more closely. When monkeys were presented with black-and-white drifting gratings their blue-sensing cells fired, confirming the chance discovery.

“For a long time we’ve had an image of the brain as a kind of computer, with particular pathways or ‘wires’ for particular nerve signals,” said Mr. Martin. “Now, it is becoming clear the wiring is a lot less precise than a computer.” The researchers say it is unlikely colour-sensing cells contribute to our brain’s processing of moving objects.

“If a nerve cell wants to tell the brain which way an object is moving it needs to respond to the same direction, regardless of size and velocity,” said Mr. Martin.

He says the colour-sensing cells are only directionally specific for certain sized objects travelling at particular speeds. For anything else, they fire at will whenever they ‘see’ it move.

The findings were published in the Journal of Vision.

More In: Science | Sci-Tech