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The photoreceptors involved in color vision are the cone cells in the retina. There are three types of cone cells that are each sensitive to different wavelengths of light, which allows us to see color. The three types of cones are short wavelength sensitive (S-cones), medium wavelength sensitive (M-cones), and long wavelength sensitive (L-cones). Rod cells, which outnumber cones, are not involved in color vision as they are not sensitive to wavelengths of light.
The Trichromatic Theory of Color Vision
The trichromatic theory of color vision states that color vision is enabled by the combined activity of the three types of cone photoreceptors. The cones contain photopigments that are differently sensitive to different wavelengths of light. The absorption spectra of the photopigments in the cones have peak sensitivities in different regions of the visible light spectrum.
|S-cones (Blue cones)
|Short wavelengths around 420 nm
|M-cones (Green cones)
|Medium wavelengths around 530 nm
|L-cones (Red cones)
|Long wavelengths around 560 nm
The trichromatic theory proposes that any color can be matched by mixing together the appropriate amount of activity of the three cones. The relative activity of the three cone types encodes color information that is processed in the visual system to produce color vision.
Distribution of Cones in the Retina
The three types of cones are not distributed evenly across the retina. The fovea centralis, which is the very center of the retina, contains almost exclusively cones and is responsible for sharp central vision. The fovea is densely packed with cones but lacks rods. Of the cones in the fovea, over half are L-cones. About one-third are M-cones and only about 2-5% are S-cones.
As you move peripherally from the fovea, the ratio of rods to cones increases dramatically. Cones are still present but become much sparser. Rods are unable to distinguish color so peripheral vision lacks the color sensitivity of foveal vision.
Genetics of Color Vision
The genes encoding the photopigment proteins in the cone cells are located on the X chromosome. Genetic variations lead to differences in color vision abilities between individuals.
Normal color vision is trichromatic and relies on the normal function of L, M and S cones. This is mediated by the genes OPN1LW and OPN1MW on the X chromosome which code for the L and M cone opsins.
Color vision deficiencies can arise from mutations or rearrangements of these genes that affect cone function. The most common forms are:
- Red-green color blindness – caused by changes in the L or M genes. Reduces ability to distinguish red and green hues.
- Blue-yellow color blindness – S cone dysfunction leading to troubles distinguishing blue from yellow.
- Monochromacy – Lack of function in two or more cone types. Severely impairs color vision and the ability to see colors.
These color vision defects are more common in men than women due to the X-linked genetics.
Neural Processing of Color Information
Signals from the cone photoreceptors are processed via two parallel pathways that make up the visual system:
- Parvocellular pathway – Processes color information and fine details. Contains mostly cells that get input from L and M cones.
- Magnocellular pathway – Responds to motion and luminance changes. Gets input primarily from rods and L/M cones.
These two streams stay segregated up to the visual cortex where color information is processed:
- The parvocellular layers of the lateral geniculate nucleus (LGN) receive input from P-cells of the retina.
- In the primary visual cortex (V1), cells are tuned to respond preferentially to certain colors.
- In the V4 visual area neurons show more complex color coding and constancy.
Higher cortical areas are responsible for more advanced color perception and recognition. Ultimately it is the combined neural processing of signals from the cones that gives rise to our perception of color.
Adaptations for Color Vision
Humans are trichromatic, meaning our retinas contain three types of cones that enable color vision. Many other mammals are dichromatic, having only two cone types. Trichromatic color vision evolved as an adaptation of primates.
Some key adaptations that enabled primates to evolve trichromatic color vision include:
- Increased number of cone photoreceptors compared to other mammals.
- A fovea with high acuity and cone density for detailed color vision.
- L and M cone genes on the X chromosome which permitted new variations to emerge via mutation.
- Neural processing adaptations including two parallel visual pathways.
The advantages of trichromatic color vision for primates likely include:
- Better detection of food sources like fruits among foliage.
- Enhanced discrimination of skin coloration for social signaling.
- Ability to discern subtle changes in health or emotional state via skin tones.
- Improved detection of predators or rivals camouflaged in the environment.
In summary, primate trichromatic vision represents an evolutionary advancement over dichromatic vision in terms of visual acuity, image segmentation, and discrimination. The three cone types and downstream neural processing support better color perception.
In humans, color vision relies on the combined activity and neural processing of signals from three types of cone photoreceptors. L, M and S cones have peak sensitivities to different wavelengths of light which enables color discrimination. The fovea centralis is densely packed with cones, predominantly L and M cones. Genetic variations lead to color vision deficiencies. Trichromatic color vision evolved as an adaptation in primates conferring selective advantages compared to mammals with only two cone photoreceptor types.