Sources of protons and a role for bicarbonate in inhibitory feedback from horizontal cells to cones in Ambystoma tigrinum retina

J Physiol. 2016 Nov 15;594(22):6661-6677. doi: 10.1113/JP272533. Epub 2016 Jul 21.


Key points: In the vertebrate retina, photoreceptors influence the signalling of neighbouring photoreceptors through lateral-inhibitory interactions mediated by horizontal cells (HCs). These interactions create antagonistic centre-surround receptive fields important for detecting edges and generating chromatically opponent responses in colour vision. The mechanisms responsible for inhibitory feedback from HCs involve changes in synaptic cleft pH that modulate photoreceptor calcium currents. However, the sources of synaptic protons involved in feedback and the mechanisms for their removal from the cleft when HCs hyperpolarize to light remain unknown. Our results indicate that Na+ -H+ exchangers are the principal source of synaptic cleft protons involved in HC feedback but that synaptic cleft alkalization during light-evoked hyperpolarization of HCs also involves changes in bicarbonate transport across the HC membrane. In addition to delineating processes that establish lateral inhibition in the retina, these results contribute to other evidence showing the key role for pH in regulating synaptic signalling throughout the nervous system.

Abstract: Lateral-inhibitory feedback from horizontal cells (HCs) to photoreceptors involves changes in synaptic cleft pH accompanying light-evoked changes in HC membrane potential. We analysed HC to cone feedback by studying surround-evoked light responses of cones and by obtaining paired whole cell recordings from cones and HCs in salamander retina. We tested three potential sources for synaptic cleft protons: (1) generation by extracellular carbonic anhydrase (CA), (2) release from acidic synaptic vesicles and (3) Na+ /H+ exchangers (NHEs). Neither antagonizing extracellular CA nor blocking loading of protons into synaptic vesicles eliminated feedback. However, feedback was eliminated when extracellular Na+ was replaced with choline and significantly reduced by an NHE inhibitor, cariporide. Depriving NHEs of intracellular protons by buffering HC cytosol with a pH 9.2 pipette solution eliminated feedback, whereas alkalinizing the cone cytosol did not, suggesting that HCs are a major source for protons in feedback. We also examined mechanisms for changing synaptic cleft pH in response to changes in HC membrane potential. Increasing the trans-membrane proton gradient by lowering the extracellular pH from 7.8 to 7.4 to 7.1 strengthened feedback. While maintaining constant extracellular pH with 1 mm HEPES, removal of bicarbonate abolished feedback. Elevating intracellular bicarbonate levels within HCs prevented this loss of feedback. A bicarbonate transport inhibitor, 4,4'-diisothiocyano-2,2'-stilbenedisulfonic acid (DIDS), also blocked feedback. Together, these results suggest that NHEs are the primary source of extracellular protons in HC feedback but that changes in cleft pH accompanying changes in HC membrane voltage also require bicarbonate flux across the HC membrane.

Keywords: calcium current; horizontal cell; pH regulation; photoreceptor; retina.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Ambystoma / metabolism*
  • Animals
  • Bicarbonates / metabolism*
  • Calcium / metabolism
  • Feedback
  • Hydrogen-Ion Concentration
  • Light
  • Membrane Potentials / physiology
  • Patch-Clamp Techniques / methods
  • Photic Stimulation / methods
  • Protons
  • Retina / metabolism
  • Retinal Cone Photoreceptor Cells / metabolism*
  • Retinal Horizontal Cells / metabolism*
  • Synapses / metabolism
  • Urodela / metabolism


  • Bicarbonates
  • Protons
  • Calcium