The aim of this study was to examine the temporal relationship between behaviorally measured visual thresholds, photoreceptor degeneration and dysfunction, synaptic and neuronal morphology changes in the retina in the S334ter line 4 rat. Specifically, we examined the optokinetic tracking (OKT) behavior in S334ter rats daily and found that OKT thresholds reflected normal values at eye opening but quickly reduced to a non-response level by postnatal day (P) 22. By contrast, the scotopic electroretinogram (ERG) showed a much slower degeneration, with substantial scotopic function remaining after P90 as previously demonstrated for this line of rats. Photopic b-wave amplitudes revealed functional levels between 70 and 100% of normal between P30 and P90. Histological evidence demonstrated that photoreceptor degeneration occurred over many months, with an outer nuclear layer (ONL) roughly half the thickness of a normal age-matched control at P90. Immunohistochemical analysis revealed a number of changes in retinal morphology in the Tg S334ter line 4 rat that occur at or before P40 including: elevated levels of rod opsin expression in the ONL, cone photoreceptor morphology changes, glial cell activation, inner retinal neuron sprouting, and microglial cell activation. Many of these changes were evident at P30 and in some cases as early as eye opening (P15). Thus, the morphological changes occurred in concert with or before the very rapid loss of the behavioral (OKT) responses, and significantly before the loss of photoreceptors and photoreceptor function.
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