Sunday, November 12, 2006

Biological control systems: (attempts in) Understanding the Nature's way

For anyone who has watched the evening twilight, dark clouds and the flock of wild geese fly across the sky, it is not difficult to figure out the relative motion among the birds and among the clouds...even from a moving vehicle. This may seem to be such a simple everyday experience that few really think twice about it, but this is considered one of the toughest problems in image processing. Posed in a more scientific terms, the problem is how can you distinguish the relative motion between two frames in a noisy environment? Any one who has fiddled with an SLR knows how difficult it is to get a perfect picture under varying environmental conditions. A slight tremor in hand can ruin a picture. However, our eyes do it without much concious effort in part due to the excellent in built control system that exactly regulates the amount of light entering the eye and focuses the image on retina. Other aspect of the built in control system is that it corrects for the movement of the head with an interface to the vestibular organ in the ear. Such fascinating control systems are part of every biological system governing almost every aspect of life...Respiration control, blood pressure and thermo regulation, circadian rhytms, chemical reaction in cells and many more. In this article we will discuss about the light regulation system in eye and a little bit about thermo regulation.
Let there be light:
As we think about the basic parts of our eyes (Fig. 1), we observe that they consist of cornea, lens, iris, ciliary muscle, and retina connected by optic nerve to brain. Functioning of eye depends on the amount of light entering the eye (Light intensity) and focusing of the image on retina. Two independent systems control these two aspects of vision.
Firstly, amount of light is regulated by the opening of pupil which is controlled by the two muscle groups in iris. Sphincter (controlled by cranial circuit which also controls the ciliary muscles which help in focusing) and dilator muscles (controlled by symphathetic nervous system of spinal cord: I wonder whether this is the reason why people look for dilated pupils when looking for vital signs in an unconcious person). Dilator muscles causes the pupil to open more whereas sphincter muscles cause the pupil to close as they contract. Acting together they control the opening of pupil in such a way that there is always an optimum light intensity falling over retina. This is a feedback control system where the pupil opening is the controlled variable( via the sphincter and dilatory muscles) while the system output is the light intensity on retina. The input is the light intensity of the environment and the control system aims to achieve a perfect pupil opening that optimizes the light intensity on retina under varying environmental conditions. By testing the pupil opening with narrow light beams (so that they do not have an effect on the light intensity regardless of pupil opening and thus disconnecting this feedback loop) it was found that the system is a very stable low gain system. Further, it is to be noted that this is not the only way eye responds to light intensity. There is another system on retina itself which adjust the signals to the optic fiber based on light intensity (reason why we can see the outlines a little better in a dark room after a few seconds of adaptation).

For more information about eye:

How about a little warmth as well: Maintianing optimum body temperature is vital for survival as most of the enzyme catalyzed reactions rates depend critically on it. Temperatures of cold blooded animals follows that of its surroundings (poikilothermy; one of the reasons such animals can be found mostly in tropical and temperate regions of the world) while that of warm blooded animals is tightly regulated (of course allowing for diurnal variations based on circadian rhytms) and is known as homeothermy. However, not everything is in pure black and white as is the rule in nature. During hibernation warm blooded animals such as hedgehog, bat and dormouse become coldblooded (to conserve their energy?) and this is referred to as heterothermy.
(More info on mammalian temperature regulation here: and Wikipedia entry: )

It can be observed that for the thermoregulation system: the controlled variable is the heat producing/conserving mechanism while the output is body temperature. The input variable is the environment temperature and the temperature of the body. Now one can ask, where should be temperature be measured so that it best represents the body temperature? on the surface of the body? or closer to the internal organs? As anyone would point out, skin temperature is not the best place to estimate the body temperature, just as placing the thermometers on the outside of a building whose interior temperature has to adjusted is a bad idea. However, it is always a good idea to open/close the windows based on outside temperature while firing up the heater must be based on both outside and inside temperature. Something similar happens in our bodies too....the internal mechanism activates the heat producing/ conserving mechanism; while the case of conserving heat by closing windows regardless of inside temperature can be related to closure of sweat glands in cold weather regardless of internal temperature. This way the amount of energy expended to maintain the temperature can also be minimized. more often than not, such multiple optimization schemes are inbuilt in biological control systems.
Ref: Optimality principles in biology: Robert Rosen, Butterworths, London. 1967. [An Excellent book that deals with the issues we discussed in chapter 9]

In the next article, we hope to discuss how seemingly extremely complex branching pattern of blood circulation system can be derived from optimality arguments (again the above book has an excellent analysis).


Prashanth said...

I'm interesting in knowing how these control mechanisms relate to the biological pathways. But I guess that would be going too deep into the subject...

Prashanth said...

Grrrr.... didn't see the typo until today and I just *have* to correct it...


atma_tripta said...

No problem. I didnt notice it when I was replying earlier either. Anyway, coming to the answer yes it has been investigated and I will try to post something on that soon.

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