Anatomy and Physiology of the Eye

Watch this video:

Media 17.1 Vision: Crash Course A&P #18 [Online video]. Copyright 2015 by CrashCourse.

Vision is the special sense of sight that is based on the transduction of light stimuli received through the eyes. The eyes are located within either orbit in the skull. The bony orbits surround the eyeballs, protecting them and anchoring the soft tissues of the eye (see Figure 17.1). The eyelids, with lashes at their leading edges, help to protect the eye from abrasions by blocking particles that may land on the surface of the eye.

The inner surface of each lid is a thin membrane known as the palpebral conjunctiva. The conjunctiva extends over the sclera, connecting the eyelids to the eyeball. Tears are produced by the lacrimal gland, located beneath the lateral edges of the nose. Tears produced by this gland flow through the lacrimal duct to the medial corner of the eye, where the tears flow over the conjunctiva, washing away foreign particles.


Lateral view of the eye. Image description available.
Figure 17.1 The Eye in the Orbit. The eye is located within the orbit and surrounded by soft tissues that protect and support its function. The orbit is surrounded by cranial bones of the skull. From Betts, et al., 2013. Licensed under CC BY 4.0. [Image description.]

Movement of the eye within the orbit is accomplished by the contraction of six extraocular muscles that originate from the bones of the orbit and insert into the surface of the eyeball. Four of the muscles are arranged at the cardinal points around the eye and are named for those locations:

  • superior rectus
  • medial rectus
  • inferior rectus
  • lateral rectus

When each of these muscles contract, the eye moves toward the contracting muscle. For example, when the superior rectus contracts, the eye rotates to look up.

Tissue Layers

The eye itself is a hollow sphere composed of three layers of tissue.

The outermost layer is the fibrous tunic, which includes the white sclera and clear cornea. The sclera accounts for five-sixths of the surface of the eye, most of which is not visible, though humans are unique compared with many other species in having so much of the “white of the eye” visible (see Figure 17.2). The transparent cornea covers the anterior tip of the eye and allows light to enter the eye.

The middle layer of the eye is the vascular tunic, which is mostly composed of the choroid, ciliary body, and iris. The choroid is a layer of highly vascularized connective tissue that provides a blood supply to the eyeball. The choroid is posterior to the ciliary body, a muscular structure that is attached to the lens by zonule fibers. These two structures bend the lens, allowing it to focus light on the back of the eye. Overlaying the ciliary body, and visible in the anterior eye, is the iris—the colored part of the eye. The iris is a smooth muscle that opens or closes the pupil, which is the hole at the center of the eye that allows light to enter. The iris constricts the pupil in response to bright light and dilates the pupil in response to dim light.

The innermost layer of the eye is the neural tunic, or retina, which contains the nervous tissue responsible for photoreception.


The eye is also divided into two cavities: the anterior cavity and the posterior cavity.

The anterior cavity is the space between the cornea and lens, including the iris and ciliary body. It is filled with a watery fluid called the aqueous humor.

The posterior cavity is the space behind the lens that extends to the posterior side of the interior eyeball, where the retina is located. The posterior cavity is filled with a more viscous fluid called the vitreous humor.


The retina is composed of several layers and contains specialized cells for the initial processing of visual stimuli. The photoreceptors (rods and cones) change their membrane potential when stimulated by light energy. There are no photoreceptors at the very back of the eye, where the optic nerve begins. This creates a “blind spot” in the retina and a corresponding blind spot in our visual field.


Lateral and medial view of eye ball. Image description available.
Figure 17.2 Structure of the Eye. The sphere of the eye can be divided into anterior and posterior chambers. The wall of the eye is composed of three layers: the fibrous tunic, vascular tunic, and neural tunic. Within the neural tunic is the retina, with three layers of cells and two synaptic layers in between. The center of the retina has a small indentation known as the fovea. From Betts, et al., 2013. Licensed under CC BY 4.0. [Image description.]

Photoreceptors in the retina (rods and cones) are located behind the axons, RGCs (retinal ganglion cell), bipolar cells, and retinal blood vessels. A significant amount of light is absorbed by these structures before the light reaches the photoreceptor cells. At the exact center of the retina is a small area known as the fovea. At the fovea, the retina lacks the supporting cells and blood vessels and only contains photoreceptors. Therefore, visual acuity is greatest at the fovea. This is because the fovea is where the least amount of incoming light is absorbed by other retinal structures. As one moves in either direction from this central point of the retina, visual acuity drops significantly.

Image Descriptions

Figure 17.1 image description: This diagram shows the lateral view of the eye. The major parts are labeled. Labels read (from top): eyebrow, orbicularis oculi muscle, levator palpebrae superioris muscle, palpebral conjunctiva, eyelashes, cornea, conjunctiva. [Return to Figure 17.1].

Figure 17.2 image description: This diagram shows a lateral and medial view of the eyeball. The major parts are labeled. Labels read (from top, clockwise): posterior cavity (vitreous chamber, scleral venous sinus (canal of Schlemm), suspensory ligaments, lens, cornea, iris, pupil); anterior cavity (contains aqueous humor, posterior chamber, anterior chamber, suspensory ligaments); Ciliary body (ciliary process and muscle), medial rectus muscle, optic disc (blind spot), central retinal artery and vein, fovea centralis, retina, choroid, sclera, lateral rectus muscle. [Return to Figure 17.2].


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Medical Terminology: An Interactive Approach Copyright © 2022 by LOUIS: The Louisiana Library Network is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book