The mammalian retina — the first component of the visual system — not only transduces light signals into neuronal representations, but also acts as a filter that transfers specific aspects of images to the brain. Movement, colour, fine detail and contrast are processed by different classes of ganglion cell. The underlying circuits are analysed in this article.
The first synapse of the retina, the cone pedicle, is the most complex synapse in the CNS. Light signals are transferred here by 500 contacts to a minimum of 10 postsynaptic horizontal and bipolar cells. Horizontal cells regulate the synaptic transmission at the cone pedicle by negative feedback, and bipolar cells transfer the light signals into the inner retina.
There are ten different types of bipolar cell, and in the primate retina midget bipolar cells provide a private line from the cones to the midget ganglion cells. They represent the red–green-selective colour channel of the primate retina. Most other bipolar cells transfer a brightness signal to the inner retina.
The rod signal is transferred by a special bipolar cell, and is fed into the ON and OFF cone pathway through the AII amacrine cell. This is the most sensitive rod pathway. Recently, other routes of the rod signal through the retina have been discovered.
There are at least 10–15 different morphological types of ganglion cell in any mammalian retina. Their dendritic trees tile the retina without leaving gaps. The brisk-transient (Y)-cells, direction-selective ganglion cells, colour-coded ganglion cells and recently discovered melanopsin-containing ganglion cells are described in detail in the article.
Within the inner plexiform layer both the bipolar cell axon terminals and the ganglion cell dendrites stratify at different heights. There they meet specific classes of amacrine cell and different levels of the inner plexiform layer, which represent different neuronal circuits for image analysis.
Many tasks in visual processing that have previously been attributed to higher stages of the visual system, such as the visual cortex, take place as early as the mammalian retina.
Our eyes send different 'images' of the outside world to the brain — an image of contours (line drawing), a colour image (watercolour painting) or an image of moving objects (movie). This is commonly referred to as parallel processing, and starts as early as the first synapse of the retina, the cone pedicle. Here, the molecular composition of the transmitter receptors of the postsynaptic neurons defines which images are transferred to the inner retina. Within the second synaptic layer — the inner plexiform layer — circuits that involve complex inhibitory and excitatory interactions represent filters that select 'what the eye tells the brain'.
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I would like to thank Silke Haverkamp for excellent cooperation.
The author declares no competing financial interests.
- IONOTROPIC RECEPTOR
A receptor that exerts its effects through modulation of ion channel activity.
- METABOTROPIC RECEPTOR
A receptor that is associated with G proteins and exerts its effects through enzyme activation.
- TWO-PHOTON MICROSCOPY
A form of microscopy in which a fluorochrome that would normally be excited by a single photon is stimulated quasi-simultaneously by two photons of lower energy. Under these conditions, only fluorochrome molecules near the plane of focus are excited, greatly reducing light scattering and photodamage of the sample.
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Wässle, H. Parallel processing in the mammalian retina. Nat Rev Neurosci 5, 747–757 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn1497
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