Eye Spy a Breakthrough in Neuroscience at the University of Akron

Photo courtesy of Dr. Jordan Renna


When most people think about science and research coming from The University of Akron, they tend to think about polymers or plastics. We are the once “rubber capital of the world” and still labeled the city of invention, but that is not all that The University of Akron is limited to.

Recently, from our department of biology, Dr. Jordan Renna has made a breakthrough discovery in neuroscience. He had originally started working on this project with Dr. Maureen Stabio, the lead author, and several other researchers when he was at Brown University’s Berson Lab. It was with their research and gathered data that, while at the University of Akron,  Dr. Renna was able to discover a new relationship with a melanopsin ganglion receptor, known as the M5 cell, that was never before understood. Yet, to understand its importance, one must understand what these are. Most people have heard of the concept of rods and cones in the eye. These photo receptors are what most people are familiar with when learning basic biology in high school, but there is actually a third photo receptor, the melanopsin ganglion cells. Unlike the rods and cones which drive image forming pathways, like color, contrast, motion, and depth, the things that allow us to navigate our environment, these melanopsin ganglion cells serve a different function. These neurons process information that regulate when our pupils react to light or when we get tired or wake up, affecting our circadian rhythm. Dr. Renna and his team had been specifically studying the melanopsin ganglion receptor known as M5.

The discovery and breakthrough found while doing his research was that the M5 cell does not only move information to the brain concerning regulation, like how our eyes react to a bright light or no light, but it also shares information about imaging such as color and contrast. The big deal about this to the scientific community is that until now, we have never found a cell in the eye that did both, and with this knowledge, it allows us to study this specific M5 cell more with a greater understanding. Dr. Renna explained that, “…one of aspects about melanopsin ganglion cells that makes them extremely interesting is they seem to be able to survive different ocular diseases like glaucoma.” This provides an opportunity and interest to further study ocular tissues, and attempt to discover if similar cells exist in primates or humans.

His lab at The University of Akron is studying how neurocircuits are formed, and how they wire up between rods, cones, and the ganglion cells, and how these connections are formed early on. His focus is the mechanisms that connect them in development, and better understanding the complexities of these connections. This current research is how to form new connections and perhaps repair them.

The importance of these breakthroughs have yet to show their true gravity, but in many cases in science, each discovery truly is the door to a new series of breakthroughs. A virtual maze of unknowns in the human body is always unwinding with the hard work and dedication of researchers and scientists. Some may just be for information giving us clarity on why things happen, others could be the catalyst to the secret of fighting a disease or combating them later. The point is, these amazing breakthroughs in science do not happen somewhere in a mysterious lab like in a SciFi movie. They happen right in our backyard with people we pass regularly as they work to better our understanding of the world around us.

If this interests you, make sure to take Dr. Renna’s classes. In the fall, there is Neuroscience and Health and Disease, where you can learn how neurons work, how neurological diseases affect the mind, and even how to read MRI images; in the spring, you can take his Research Techniques of Neuroscience course.