Synaptic Contacts and the Transient Dendritic Spines of Developing Retinal Ganglion Cells

Eur J Neurosci. 1992;4(12):1387-1397. doi: 10.1111/j.1460-9568.1992.tb00164.x.


The dendrites of ganglion cells in the mammalian retina become extensively remodelled during synapse formation in the inner plexiform layer. In particular, after birth in the cat, many short spiny protrusions are lost from the dendrites of ganglion cells during the time when ribbon, presumably bipolar, synapses appear in the inner plexiform layer and when conventional, presumed amacrine, synapses increase significantly in number. It has therefore been postulated that these transient spines may be the initial or preferred substrates for competitive interactions between amacrine or bipolar cell terminals that subsequently result in the formation of appropriate synapses onto the ganglion cells. If so, the majority of synapses made onto developing ganglion cells should be found on these dendritic spines. To test this hypothesis, we determined the synaptic connectivity of identified ganglion cells in the postnatal cat retina during the period of peak spine loss and synapse formation. The dendritic trees of ganglion cells were intracellularly filled with Lucifer yellow that was subsequently photo-oxidized into an electron-dense product suitable for electron microscopy. In serial reconstructions of the dendrites of a postnatal day 11 (P11) alpha ganglion cell and a P14 beta ganglion cell, conventional and ribbon synapses were found predominantly on dendritic shafts. Only three out of a total of 341 dendritic spines from the two cells received direct presynaptic input, all of which were conventional synapses. Thus, our observations suggest that the transient dendritic spines are not the preferred postsynaptic sites as previously suspected. However, it is possible that these structures play a different role in synaptogenesis, such as mediating interactions between retinal neurons that may lead to cell - cell recognition, a necessary step prior to synapse formation at the appropriate target sites (Cooper and Smith, Soc. Neurosci. Abstr., 14, 893, 1988).