Purpose: Early visual defects in degenerative diseases such as retinitis pigmentosa (RP) may arise from phased remodeling of the neural retina. The authors sought to explore the functional expression of ionotropic (iGluR) and group 3, type 6 metabotropic (mGluR6) glutamate receptors in late-stage photoreceptor degeneration.
Methods: Excitation mapping with organic cations and computational molecular phenotyping were used to determine whether retinal neurons displayed functional glutamate receptor signaling in rodent models of retinal degeneration and a sample of human RP.
Results: After photoreceptor loss in rodent models of RP, bipolar cells lose mGluR6 and iGluR glutamate-activated currents, whereas amacrine and ganglion cells retain iGluR-mediated responsivity. Paradoxically, amacrine and ganglion cells show spontaneous iGluR signals in vivo even though bipolar cells lack glutamate-coupled depolarization mechanisms. Cone survival can rescue iGluR expression by OFF bipolar cells. In a case of human RP with cone sparing, iGluR signaling appeared intact, but the number of bipolar cells expressing functional iGluRs was double that of normal retina.
Conclusions: RP triggers permanent loss of bipolar cell glutamate receptor expression, though spontaneous iGluR-mediated signaling by amacrine and ganglion cells implies that such truncated bipolar cells still release glutamate in response to some nonglutamatergic depolarization. Focal cone-sparing can preserve iGluR display by nearby bipolar cells, which may facilitate late RP photoreceptor transplantation attempts. An instance of human RP provides evidence that rod bipolar cell dendrite switching likely triggers new gene expression patterns and may impair cone pathway function.