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Retinal bipolar cells: elementary building blocks of vision

Key Points

  • Bipolar cells are the only neurons that connect the outer retina to the inner retina. They implement an 'extra' layer of processing that is not typically found in other sensory organs.

  • The different types (typically more than ten) of bipolar cells systematically transform the photoreceptor signal in different ways, most notably, but not exclusively, in terms of chromatic preference, polarity (ON versus OFF) and kinetics (transient versus sustained responses).

  • Bipolar cells first shape their specific response properties at their dendrites through a plethora of mechanisms involving different contact morphologies, receptor types and secondary messenger systems, as well as lateral inputs from horizontal cells.

  • Additional scope for signal modification exists in the axonal terminal system, in which local ionic currents and lateral inputs from amacrine cells contribute to shaping a bipolar cell's final output to its postsynaptic partners.

  • Individual bipolar cells may, in principle, provide differential input to different postsynaptic circuits.

  • Postsynaptic circuits may combine inputs from different types of bipolar cells to inherit different, highly specific signalling properties.

Abstract

Retinal bipolar cells are the first 'projection neurons' of the vertebrate visual system — all of the information needed for vision is relayed by this intraretinal connection. Each of the at least 13 distinct types of bipolar cells systematically transforms the photoreceptor input in a different way, thereby generating specific channels that encode stimulus properties, such as polarity, contrast, temporal profile and chromatic composition. As a result, bipolar cell output signals represent elementary 'building blocks' from which the microcircuits of the inner retina derive a feature-oriented description of the visual world.

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Figure 1: Organization of the bipolar cells in a mammalian retina.
Figure 2: Bipolar cell anatomy.
Figure 3: Shaping bipolar cell signals: dendrites and axon terminals.
Figure 4: Building ganglion cell circuits from bipolar cell elementary operations.

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Acknowledgements

This work was supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) (Werner Reichardt Centre for Integrative Neuroscience Tübingen, EXC 307 to T.E. and T.S.; and HA-5277/2-2 to S.H.), the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) (BCCN Tübingen, FKZ 01GQ1002 to T.E and T.B.), the fortüne programme of the Faculty of Medicine Tübingen (2125-0-0 to T.B.), and the BW-Stiftung (AZ 1.16101.09 to T.B.).

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Supplementary information

Supplementary information S1 (figure)

Organization of the bipolar cell types in the mouse retina. (PDF 550 kb)

Supplementary information S2 (table)

Immunomarkers and transgenic lines for mouse bipolar cells (PDF 202 kb)

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Glossary

Bistratified

This term describes bipolar cells that send projections to two strata within the retina's inner plexiform layer.

Tristratified

This term describes bipolar cells that send projections to three strata within the retina's inner plexiform layer.

Opsins

Light-sensitive G protein-coupled receptors that are expressed in photoreceptors. Different opsin types are sensitive to different wavelengths of light, and thus comparing the responses of spectrally distinct types forms the basis of colour vision. In addition to rhodopsin, the opsin of the rod photoreceptors, mammals express up to three types of cone opsins: short-, mid- and long-wavelength-sensitive opsins.

Isopotential

This term is used here to describe a single neuronal compartment that does not exhibit local voltage differences.

Poisson process

A stochastic process that counts the number of events and their timing. Inter-arrival times between each pair of consecutive events have an exponential distribution and are independent.

Linear–non-linear model

A simplified model of neural responses to an arbitrary stimulus that is based on a sequential set-up of a linear operation followed by a non-linear operation.

Ribbons

Specialized presynaptic structures found in some sensory neurons — including bipolar cells and photoreceptors — that promote the trafficking and fusion of synaptic vesicles at the active zone.

Multiplexing

This term is used to denote the idea that a single neuron may relay different synaptic signals to different postsynaptic partners.

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Euler, T., Haverkamp, S., Schubert, T. et al. Retinal bipolar cells: elementary building blocks of vision. Nat Rev Neurosci 15, 507–519 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn3783

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