Ca(2+) influx through voltage-gated Ca(2+) channels triggers the release of neurotransmitters at presynaptic terminals. Some sensory receptor cells in the peripheral auditory and visual systems have specialized synapses that express an electron-dense organelle called a synaptic ribbon. Like conventional synapses, ribbon synapses exhibit SNARE-mediated exocytosis, clathrin-mediated endocytosis, and short-term plasticity. However, unlike non-ribbon synapses, voltage-gated L-type Ca(2+) channel opening at ribbon synapses triggers a form of multiquantal release that can be highly synchronous. Furthermore, ribbon synapses appear to be specialized for fast and high throughput exocytosis controlled by graded membrane potential changes. Here we will discuss some of the basic aspects of synaptic transmission at different types of ribbon synapses, and we will emphasize recent evidence that auditory and retinal ribbon synapses have marked differences. This will lead us to suggest that ribbon synapses are specialized for particular operating ranges and frequencies of stimulation. We propose that different types of ribbon synapses transfer diverse rates of sensory information by expressing a particular repertoire of critical components, and by placing them at precise and strategic locations, so that a continuous supply of primed vesicles and Ca(2+) influx leads to fast, accurate, and ongoing exocytosis.
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