The optic nerve, also known as cranial nerve II, is a paired nerve that transmits visual information from the retina to the brain. The optic nerve is derived from optic stalks during the seventh week of development and is composed of retinal ganglion cell axons and glial cells. In humans, the optic nerve extends from the optic disc to the optic chiasm and continues as the optic tract to the lateral geniculate nucleus, pretectal nuclei, and superior colliculus.
The optic nerve is the second of twelve paired cranial nerves and is technically part of the central nervous system, rather than the peripheral nervous system because it is derived from an out-pouching of the diencephalon (optic stalks) during embryonic development. As a consequence, the fibers of the optic nerve are covered with myelin produced by oligodendrocytes, rather than Schwann cells of the peripheral nervous system, and are encased within the meninges. Peripheral neuropathies like Guillain–Barré syndrome do not affect the optic nerve. However, most typically the optic nerve is grouped with the other eleven cranial nerves and considered to be part of the peripheral nervous system.
The optic nerve is ensheathed in all three meningeal layers (dura, arachnoid, and pia mater) rather than the epineurium, perineurium, and endoneurium found in peripheral nerves. Fiber tracts of the mammalian central nervous system (as opposed to the peripheral nervous system) are incapable of regeneration, and, hence, optic nerve damage produces irreversible blindness. The fibres from the retina run along the optic nerve to nine primary visual nuclei in the brain, from which a major relay inputs into the primary visual cortex.
The optic nerve is composed of retinal ganglion cell axons and glial cells. Each human optic nerve contains between 770,000 and 1.7 million nerve fibers, which are axons of the retinal ganglion cells of one retina. In the fovea, which has high acuity, these ganglion cells connect to as few as 5 photoreceptor cells; in other areas of retina, they connect to many thousand photoreceptors.
The optic nerve leaves the orbit (eye socket) via the optic canal, running postero-medially towards the optic chiasm, where there is a partial decussation (crossing) of fibres from the temporal visual fields (the nasal hemi-retina) of both eyes. The proportion of decussating fibers varies between species, and is correlated with the degree of binocular vision enjoyed by a species. Most of the axons of the optic nerve terminate in the lateral geniculate nucleus from where information is relayed to the visual cortex, while other axons terminate in the pretectal nucleus and are involved in reflexive eye movements. Other axons terminate in the suprachiasmatic nucleus and are involved in regulating the sleep-wake cycle. Its diameter increases from about 1.6 mm within the eye to 3.5 mm in the orbit to 4.5 mm within the cranial space. The optic nerve component lengths are 1 mm in the globe, 24 mm in the orbit, 9 mm in the optic canal, and 16 mm in the cranial space before joining the optic chiasm. There, partial decussation occurs, and about 53% of the fibers cross to form the optic tracts. Most of these fibres terminate in the lateral geniculate body.
Based on this anatomy, the optic nerve may be divided in the four parts as indicated in the image at the top of this section (this view is from above as if you were looking into the orbit after the top of the skull had been removed): 1. the optic head (which is where it begins in the eyeball (globe) with fibers from the retina; 2. orbital part (which is the part within the orbit). 3. intracanicular part (which is the part within a bony canal known as the optic canal); and, 4. cranial part (the part within the cranial cavity, which ends at the optic chiasm).
From the lateral geniculate body, fibers of the optic radiation pass to the visual cortex in the occipital lobe of the brain. In more specific terms, fibers carrying information from the contralateral superior visual field traverse Meyer's loop to terminate in the lingual gyrus below the calcarine fissure in the occipital lobe, and fibers carrying information from the contralateral inferior visual field terminate more superiorly, to the cuneus.
The optic nerve transmits all visual information including brightness perception, color perception and contrast (visual acuity). It also conducts the visual impulses that are responsible for two important neurological reflexes: the light reflex and the accommodation reflex. The light reflex refers to the constriction of both pupils that occurs when light is shone into either eye; the accommodation reflex refers to the swelling of the lens of eye that occurs when one looks at a near object as in reading (lens adjusts to near vision).
The eye's blind spot is a result of the absence of photoreceptors in the area of the retina where the optic nerve leaves the eye.
Damage to the optic nerve typically causes permanent and potentially severe loss of vision, as well as an abnormal pupillary reflex, which is diagnostically important. The type of visual field loss will depend on which portions of the optic nerve were damaged. In general:
Injury to the optic nerve can be the result of congenital or inheritable problems like Leber's Hereditary Optic Neuropathy, glaucoma, trauma, toxicity, inflammation, ischemia, infection (very rarely), or compression from tumors or aneurysms. By far, the three most common injuries to the optic nerve are from glaucoma, optic neuritis (especially in those younger than 50 years of age), and anterior ischemic optic neuropathy (usually in those older than 50).
Glaucoma is a group of diseases involving loss of retinal ganglion cells causing optic neuropathy in a pattern of peripheral vision loss, initially sparing central vision. Glaucoma is associated with increased intraocular pressure that damages the optic nerve as it exits the eyeball. Although glaucoma does eventually damage the optic nerve, it is primarily a disease of eye not of the nerve.
Optic neuritis is inflammation of the optic nerve. It is associated with a number of diseases, the most notable one being multiple sclerosis. The patient will likely experience varying vision loss and eye pain. The condition tends to be episodic.
Anterior ischemic optic neuropathy is commonly known as "stroke of the optic nerve" and affects the optic nerve head. There is usually a sudden loss of blood supply and nutrients to the optic nerve head (where the nerve exits the eyeball). Vision loss is typically sudden and most commonly occurs upon waking up in the morning. This condition is most common in diabetic patients 40–70 years old.
Optic nerve hypoplasia is the underdevelopment of the optic nerve resulting in little to no vision in the affected eye.
Tumors, especially those of the pituitary gland, can put pressure on the optic nerve causing various forms of visual loss. Similarly, cerebral aneurysms (swelling of blood vessels) can also affect the nerve.
Trauma can cause serious injury to the nerve. Direct optic nerve injury can occur from a penetrating injury to the orbit, but the nerve can also be injured by indirect trauma in which severe head impact or movement stretches or even tears the nerve
Ophthalmologists and optometrists can detect and diagnose some optic nerve diseases but neuro-ophthalmologists are often best suited to diagnose and treat diseases of the optic nerve.
The International Foundation for Optic Nerve Diseases (IFOND) sponsors research and provides information on a variety of optic nerve disorders.
Similar to other CNS tracts, the optic has very limited regenerative potential after injury. However, some new techniques are being developed to increase this potential.