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King-Wai Yau on Night Vision That’s Not “on the Brain”

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King-Wai Yau on Night Vision That’s Not “on the Brain”

Compiled by Jennifer Wicks
King-Wai Yau on Night Vision That’s Not “on the Brain”

King-Wai Yau, is a professor of neuroscience and ophthalmology. He investigates sight and smell, and his discoveries have led to finding the cause of a type of vision loss. His current research studies a unique function in many nocturnal nonprimates that allows their pupils to constrict without using the brain.On Aug. 28, 2017, Yau participated in Reddit's "Ask Me Anything" and answered questions about his research.


Tell us about your current research.

Yau: Recently, my research has focused on understanding how light-induced pupillary constriction in mouse eyes can occur without the brain. The pupils in a mouse’s eyes get smaller when the animal is moved from a dark to a lit room even when the nerve connections between the animal’s brain and eyes are severed. Unlike in humans, a mouse’s pupils can constrict without an obligatory connection to the brain because light-detecting pigment, which is present in the iris’s sphincter muscle, responds directly to light. This is true of many nocturnal nonprimates. 

Did science always interest you?

Yau: Science has always been intriguing to me. I spent some time in medical school at The University of Hong Kong but soon changed my focus to basic science. I find neuroscience fascinating, particularly the special senses of sight and smell because they play an essential role in how we interact with the world around us. For example, additional photoreceptor cells in the retina were recently discovered. These cells play an instrumental role in our interaction with the environment by enabling us to understand the progress of day. This helps us get over jet lag when experiencing abrupt changes in time zones.

Will your research on light-induced pupillary constriction in mice without using the brain have any impact on humans with certain vision or neurological impairments?

Dr. Yau King-Wai Yau getting ready for his Reddit/AMA.

Yau: That would depend on the types of impairments involved. Humans need the brain for all of our conscious perception, even though pupillary restriction is a subconscious function. The absence of the local light reflex in human beings allows doctors to quickly evaluate whether a comatose patient is brain-dead by checking his or her pupillary light reflex. Now that we know the sphincter muscle is intrinsically light sensitive, which is a very unusual muscle property, we will do more research to determine how this property relates to humans. 

What are your interests outside of your research?

Yau: I do not spend much time away from my research, but will put aside work some evenings to watch Nature and Nova on PBS.

 

*For full questions asked during the AMA, go here.