Contrast enhancement and distributed encoding by bipolar cells in the retina

J Neurophysiol. 1998 Sep;80(3):1070-81. doi: 10.1152/jn.1998.80.3.1070.


Responses of bipolar cells, cone photoreceptors, and horizontal cells were recorded intracellularly in superfused eyecup preparations of the tiger salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum). Contrast flashes of positive and negative polarity were applied at the center of the receptive field while the entire retina was light adapted to a background field of 20 cd/m2. For small contrasts, many bipolar cells showed remarkably high contrast gain: up to 15-20% of the bipolar response was evoked by a contrast step of 1%. There was considerable variation from cell to cell but, on average, no striking differences in contrast gain were found between the depolarizing (Bd) and hyperpolarizing (Bh) bipolar cells. Quantitative comparisons of contrast/response measurements for cone photoreceptors and cone-driven bipolars suggest that the high contrast gain of bipolars is the consequence of a 5-10 x amplification of small signals across the cone-->bipolar synapse. Bipolar cells had a very restricted linear range of response and tended to saturate at stimulus levels that were within the linear range of the cone response. The contrast/response of horizontal cells was similar to that of cones and differed markedly from that of Bh cells. For steps of equal contrast, the latency of the Bh cells was approximately 20 ms shorter than that of the Bd cells regardless of the contrast magnitude. For both bipolar cells and cones, the effect of contrast polarity on latency seems largely due to the absolute value of the light step, delta L. In the large signal domain, properties of the contrast responses of bipolar cells varied appreciably, both within and between the Bd and Bh classes. Cells of either class could be positive- or negative-contrast dominant. These and additional results show that in the light-adapted retina, the bipolar population is functionally diverse and has the potential to provide a rich substrate for distributed encoding of visual images.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Contrast Sensitivity / physiology*
  • Electrophysiology
  • Membrane Potentials / physiology
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Retinal Cone Photoreceptor Cells / cytology*
  • Retinal Cone Photoreceptor Cells / physiology*
  • Synapses / physiology
  • Urodela