The first synapses transmitting visual information contain an unusual organelle, the ribbon, which is involved in the transport and priming of vesicles to be released at the active zone. The ribbon is one of many design features that allow efficient refilling of the active zone, which in turn enables graded changes in membrane potential to be transmitted using a continuous mode of neurotransmitter release. The ribbon also plays a key role in supplying vesicles for rapid and transient bursts of release that signal fast changes, such as the onset of light. We increasingly understand how the physiological properties of ribbon synapses determine basic transformations of the visual signal and, in particular, how the process of refilling the active zone regulates the gain and adaptive properties of the retinal circuit. The molecular basis of ribbon function is, however, far from clear.
Keywords: active zone; calcium; endocytosis; exocytosis; sensory processing; vesicle.