The synapses of photoreceptors and bipolar cells in the retina are characterized ultrastructurally by the presence of an electron-dense bar, the synaptic ribbon, lying perpendicular to the plasma membrane at the active zone and extending about 0.5 microm into the cytoplasm. Hence, these synapses are known as ribbon synapses. All neurons that make ribbon synapses release neurotransmitter tonically. That is, neurotransmitter is released continuously from these neurons and the rate of release is modulated in response to graded changes in the membrane potential. This contrasts with action potential-driven, phasic release from other neurons. Similar to other synapses, neurotransmitter is released at ribbon synapses by the calcium-dependent exocytosis of synaptic vesicles. Most components of the molecular machinery governing transmitter release are conserved between ribbon and conventional synapses, but several differences that may be important determinants of tonic transmitter release have been identified in the retina by immunohistochemistry. For example, the presynaptic calcium channels of bipolar cells and photoreceptors are different from those elsewhere in the brain. Differences have also been found in the proteins involved in synaptic vesicle recruitment to the active zone and in synaptic vesicle fusion. These differences and others are discussed in terms of their implications for neurotransmitter release from photoreceptors and bipolar cells in the retina.
Copyright 2000 Wiley-Liss, Inc.