Receptoral Mechanisms for Fast Cholinergic Transmission in Direction-Selective Retinal Circuitry

Front Cell Neurosci. 2020 Nov 26;14:604163. doi: 10.3389/fncel.2020.604163. eCollection 2020.


Direction selectivity represents an elementary sensory computation that can be related to underlying synaptic mechanisms. In mammalian retina, direction-selective ganglion cells (DSGCs) respond strongly to visual motion in a "preferred" direction and weakly to motion in the opposite, "null" direction. The DS mechanism depends on starburst amacrine cells (SACs), which provide null direction-tuned GABAergic inhibition and untuned cholinergic excitation to DSGCs. GABAergic inhibition depends on conventional synaptic transmission, whereas cholinergic excitation apparently depends on paracrine (i.e., non-synaptic) transmission. Despite its paracrine mode of transmission, cholinergic excitation is more transient than GABAergic inhibition, yielding a temporal difference that contributes essentially to the DS computation. To isolate synaptic mechanisms that generate the distinct temporal properties of cholinergic and GABAergic transmission from SACs to DSGCs, we optogenetically stimulated SACs while recording postsynaptic currents (PSCs) from DSGCs in mouse retina. Direct recordings from channelrhodopsin-2-expressing (ChR2+) SACs during quasi-white noise (WN) (0-30 Hz) photostimulation demonstrated precise, graded optogenetic control of SAC membrane current and potential. Linear systems analysis of ChR2-evoked PSCs recorded in DSGCs revealed cholinergic transmission to be faster than GABAergic transmission. A deconvolution-based analysis showed that distinct postsynaptic receptor kinetics fully account for the temporal difference between cholinergic and GABAergic transmission. Furthermore, GABAA receptor blockade prolonged cholinergic transmission, identifying a new functional role for GABAergic inhibition of SACs. Thus, fast cholinergic transmission from SACs to DSGCs arises from at least two distinct mechanisms, yielding temporal properties consistent with conventional synapses despite its paracrine nature.

Keywords: GABA; acetylcholine; direction selectivity; neural circuits; optogenetics; paracrine transmission; retina; synaptic transmission.