Functional allocation of synaptic contacts in microcircuits from rods via rod bipolar to AII amacrine cells in the mouse retina



Retinal microcircuits for night vision at the absolute threshold are required to relay a single-photon rod signal reliably to ganglion cells via rod bipolar (RB) cells and AII amacrine cells. To assess the noise reduction of intercellular signal transmission in this rod-specific pathway, we quantified its synaptic connectivity by 3D reconstruction of a series of electron micrographs. In most cases (94%), each rod made ribbon synaptic contacts onto two adjacent RB cells. Conversely, each RB cell was contacted by 25 rods. Each RB axon terminal contacted four or five AII amacrine cells via 53 ribbon synapses. Thus, the signal from one rod may be represented as 106 replicates at two RB axons. Moreover, the two adjacent RB cells contacted two to four AII amacrine cells in common, where the signals relayed by two RB cells were reunited. In more detail, over 50% of each RB output was directed predominantly to a single, preferred AII amacrine cell, although each RB cell also separately contacted another one to three AII amacrine cells. Most of the replicate signals at two RB axons were collected on a few AII amacrine cells via reunions, dominant connections, and electrical coupling by AII–AII gap junctions. Thus the original signal may be reliably represented by signal amplification with focal accumulation without gathering unnecessary noise from a wide surrounding area. This allocation of RB–AII synaptic contacts may serve as the structural basis for the physiological properties of the AII single-photon response that include high amplification, local adaptation, and regenerative acceleration. J. Comp. Neurol. 521:3541-3555, 2013. © 2013 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.