The uvea is the vascular middle layer of the eye. It is traditionally divided into three areas, from front to back, the:
The prime functions of the uveal tract as a unit are:
- Nutrition and gas exchange: uveal vessels directly perfuse the ciliary body and iris, to support their metabolic needs, and indirectly supply diffusible nutrients to the outer retina, sclera, and lens, which lack any intrinsic blood supply. (The cornea has no adjacent blood vessels and is oxygenated by direct gas exchange with the environment.)
- Light absorption: the uvea improves the contrast of the retinal image by reducing reflected light within the eye (analogous to the black paint inside a camera), and also absorbs outside light transmitted through the sclera, which is not fully opaque.
In addition some uveal regions have special functions of great importance, including secretion of the aqueous humour by the ciliary processes, control of accommodation (focus) by the ciliary body, and optimisation of retinal illumination by the iris’s control over the pupil. Many of these functions are under the control of the autonomic nervous system.
The pupil provides a visible example of the neural feedback control in the body. This is subserved by a balance between the antagonistic sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions of the autonomic nervous system. Informal pharmacological experiments have been performed on the pupil for centuries, since the pupil is readily visible, and its size can be readily altered by applying drugs—even crude plant extracts—to the cornea. Pharmacological control over pupil size remains an important part of the treatment of some ocular diseases.
Drugs can also reduce the metabolically active process of secreting aqueous humour, which is important in treating both acute and chronic glaucoma.