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USMLE® Step 1 questions

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High Yield Notes

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USMLE® Step 1 style questions USMLE

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A researcher is studying the physiology of vision. She identifies a cell responsible for processing light stimuli in bright environments and facilitating high-acuity vision. Which of the following cells was most likely identified?


Photoreception is the process that describes how photoreceptors like rods and cones absorb light waves that enter the eye and convert them into electrical signals which are then sent to the brain for visual processing.

Photoreceptors are located in the retina, which is a light sensitive neural layer of tissue at the back of the eye.

The retina itself is composed of ten of its own distinct layers.

Moving from the deepest layer of the retina, from posterior to anterior, the layers are as follows: the pigment epithelium, the photoreceptor layer, the outer limiting membrane, the outer nuclear layer, the outer plexiform layer, the inner nuclear layer, the inner plexiform layer, the ganglion cell layer, the nerve fiber layer, and finally the inner limiting membrane.

Since the inner limiting membrane and nerve fiber layer are the most anterior portions of the retina, you would think that as light enters the eye it would hit these layers first.

However, light actually travels right past all the retinal layers until it comes into contact with the deepest layer of the retina, the pigmented layer.

So let’s trace the pathway of a visual impulse as it travels from the pigmented layer, all the way through to the nerve fiber layer and eventually to the brain.

The first layer, the pigmented layer is only a single-cell thick and is the layer closest to the choroid, the vascular portion of the eye just posterior to the retina.

The pigmented layer contains epithelial cells which absorb light so it doesn’t scatter within the eye.

The second layer, the photoreceptor layer contains photoreceptors.

Photoreceptors are specialized neurons that detect light and when they hyperpolarize, they send visual impulses in the form of electrical signals to the brain.

The third layer is the outer limiting membrane which sits at the base of the photoreceptor cells and provides mechanical support to the retina, helping it to maintain its structure.

The fourth layer of the retina is called the outer nuclear layer and it’s made up of the cell body and nuclei of the photoreceptor cells.


Photoreception is the process by which photoreceptor cells transduce light energy into electrical energy. Human photoreceptor cells are rods and cones found within the retina. Rods are mainly used for night vision, have a high sensitivity to light, and a low visual acuity, whereas cones are mainly used for color vision, have a low sensitivity to light, and a high visual acuity.


  1. "Medical Physiology" Elsevier (2016)
  2. "Physiology" Elsevier (2017)
  3. "Human Anatomy & Physiology" Pearson (2018)
  4. "Principles of Anatomy and Physiology" Wiley (2014)
  5. "Responses of retinal rods to single photons" The Journal of Physiology (1979)
  6. "Functions of the ON and OFF channels of the visual system" Nature (1986)

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