Overview of the Iris of the Eye

The iris is the colored part of the eye that controls the amount of light that enters into the eye. It is the most visible part of the eye. The iris lies in front of the crystalline lens and separates the anterior chamber form the posterior chamber. The iris in part of the uveal tract which includes the ciliary body that also lies behind the iris.

The iris tissue makes up the pupil. The pupil is the hole in the iris in which light passes through to the back of the eye. The iris controls the pupil size. The pupil is actually located with its center a little below and slightly to the nasal side of the center of the cornea.

Eye close-up
Tim Flach / Getty Images

Pupil Size

The size of the pupil is controlled by two muscles in the iris. The sphincter pupillae surrounds the border of the pupil and when it contracts, the pupil decreases in size. This is called miosis. The second muscle that controls pupil size is the dilator pupillae. This muscle contains fibers that are arranged in a radial pattern in the iris. When it contracts, the pupil dilates or increases in size. This is called mydriasis. 

The parasympathetic system controls the sphincter pupillae and the sympathetic system controls the dilator pupillae. There is a connection between these muscles in that that the dilator muscle must relax to allow the sphincter to constrict the pupil. Normal pupil size ranges from 2 to 4 mm in diameter in the light to 4 to 8 mm in the dark.

Iris Color

Iris color depends on the amount of melanin pigment in the iris. A person with brown eyes has the same color of melanin pigment that a person with a blue eye has. However, the blue-eyed person has much less pigment. The back of the iris is usually heavily pigmented to prevent light from shining through the iris.

The inheritance patterns of iris color is a heavily studied area. Eye color is controlled by three basic genes. Researchers understand two of those genes really well and one of them is still a bit of a mystery. These genes control the development of green, brown and blue eye color. Gray, hazel, and other combinations are more difficult to predict. In some families, eye color inheritance follows very predictable patterns whereas, in other families, it doesn't seem to make sense or follow any rules. In genetics, this is termed "polygenic." Polygenic means that there may be several complicated genes involved that interact to create eye color. Just stating that brown may be dominant to blue does make for easy explanations, but this model is too simplistic for all of the variations seen in real life.

Abnormalities of the Iris & Pupil

Iris and pupil disorders include:

  • Aniridia - Aniridia is a genetic defect in which the person is born with an iris.
  • Coloboma - An iris coloboma is a large hole in the iris
  • Synechiae - Synechia is adhesions that occur between the lens and the iris
  • Corectopia - Corectopia is where the pupil is off-center
  • Dyscoria - Dyscoria is a disorder where the pupil is distorted or irregular and does not dilate normally

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What does the iris do?

    The iris helps control the amount of light that reaches the retina in the back of the eye. Muscles in the iris allow the pupil to dilate (widen) to let in more light and constrict (narrow) to let in less light.

  • Where is the iris in the eye?

    The iris is in the uveal tract, which is the middle layer of the eye. It lies behind the cornea and in front of the lens, which both help to focus light on the back of the eye.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Eye Institute. About the Eye.

  2. McDougal DH, Gamlin PD. Autonomic control of the eye. Compr Physiol. 2015;5(1):439-73. doi:10.1002/cphy.c140014

  3. Reinhold HA, West MP. Nervous System. Acute Care Handbook for Physical Therapists, 4th edition. 2014;6:123-160. doi:10.1016/B978-1-4557-2896-1.00006-8

  4. American Academy of Ophthalmology. Eye anatomy: Parts of the eye and how we see.

By Troy Bedinghaus, OD
Troy L. Bedinghaus, OD, board-certified optometric physician, owns Lakewood Family Eye Care in Florida. He is an active member of the American Optometric Association.