Transmission of single photon signals through a binary synapse in the mammalian retina

Vis Neurosci. Sep-Oct 2004;21(5):693-702. doi: 10.1017/S0952523804215048.


At very low light levels the sensitivity of the visual system is determined by the efficiency with which single photons are captured, and the resulting signal transmitted from the rod photoreceptors through the retinal circuitry to the ganglion cells and on to the brain. Although the tiny electrical signals due to single photons have been observed in rod photoreceptors, little is known about how these signals are preserved during subsequent transmission to the optic nerve. We find that the synaptic currents elicited by single photons in mouse rod bipolar cells have a peak amplitude of 5-6 pA, and that about 20 rod photoreceptors converge upon each rod bipolar cell. The data indicates that the first synapse, between rod photoreceptors and rod bipolar cells, signals a binary event: the detection, or not, of a photon or photons in the connected rod photoreceptors. We present a simple model that demonstrates how a threshold nonlinearity during synaptic transfer allows transmission of the single photon signal, while rejecting the convergent neural noise from the 20 other rod photoreceptors feeding into this first synapse.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Dark Adaptation
  • Electrophysiology
  • Interneurons / physiology*
  • Light
  • Mice
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Photons*
  • Retinal Rod Photoreceptor Cells / physiology*
  • Synapses / physiology*
  • Synaptic Transmission*
  • Vision, Ocular / physiology*