Retinal Neurons

The mature retina contains five classes of neurons: photoreceptors (purple), horizontal cells (yellow), bipolar neurons (green), amacrine cells (pink and blue), and ganglion cells (pink and blue). In this cross section of an adult mouse retina, only a subset of bipolar cells, “the ON bipolar cells” are visible by their expression of GFP. The pink and blue speckled striations at the bottom of the image mark the fiber layer, which contains the ganglion cell axons that will form the optic nerve.

Imaged by Josh Morgan, courtesy of Rachel Wong, University of Washington

The Social Psychology of Nerve Cells

The functional organization of the central nervous system depends upon a precise architecture and connectivity of distinct types of neurons. Multiple cell types are present within any brain structure, but the rules governing their positioning, and the molecular mechanisms mediating those rules, have been relatively unexplored.

A new study by UC Santa Barbara researchers demonstrates that a particular neuron, the cholinergic amacrine cell, creates a “personal space” in much the same way that people distance themselves from one another in an elevator. In addition, the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that this feature is heritable and identifies a genetic contributor to it, pituitary tumor-transforming gene 1 (Pttg1).

Patrick Keeley, a postdoctoral scholar in Benjamin Reese’s laboratory at UCSB’s Neuroscience Research Institute, has been using the retina as a model system for exploring such principles of developmental neurobiology. The retina is ideal because this portion of the central nervous system lends itself to such spatial analysis. 

“Populations of neurons in the retina are laid out in single strata within this layered structure, lending themselves to accurate quantitation and statistical analysis,” explained Keeley. “Rather than being distributed as regular lattices of nerve cells, populations in the retina appear to abide by a simple rule, that of minimizing proximity to other cells of the same type. We would like to understand how such populations create and maintain such spacing behavior.”

To address this, Keeley and colleagues quantified the regularity in the population of a particular type of amacrine cell in the mouse retina. They did so in 26 genetically distinct strains of mice and found that every strain exhibited this same self-spacing behavior but that some strains did so more efficiently than others. Amacrine cells are retinal interneurons that form connections between other neurons and regulate bipolar cell output.

“The regularity in the patterning of these amacrine cells showed little variation within each strain, while showing conspicuous variation between the strains, indicating a heritable component to this trait,” said Keeley.

“This itself was something of a surprise, given that the patterning in such populations has an apparently stochastic quality to it,” said Reese, a professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. Stochastic systems are random and are analyzed, at least in part, using probability theory.

This strain variation in the regularity of this cellular patterning showed a significant linkage to a location in the genome on chromosome 11, where the researchers identified Pttg1, previously unknown to play any role in the retina.

Working in collaboration with colleagues at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis, Keeley’s team demonstrated that the expression of this gene varies across the 26 strains of mice and that there was a positive correlation between gene expression and regularity. They then identified a mutation in this gene that itself correlated with expression levels and with regularity. Working with colleagues at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, the team also demonstrated directly that this mutation controlled gene expression.   

“Pttg1 has diverse functions, being an oncogene for pituitary tumors, and is known to have regulatory functions orchestrating gene expression elsewhere in the body,” explained Keeley. “Within this class of retinal neurons, it should be regulating the way in which cells integrate signals from their immediate neighbors, translating that information to position the cell farthest from those neighbors.” Future studies should decipher the genetic network controlled by Pttg1 that mediates such nerve-cell spacing.

Critical Gene in Retinal Development and Motion Sensing Identified

Our vision depends on exquisitely organized layers of cells within the eye’s retina, each with a distinct role in perception. Johns Hopkins researchers say they have taken an important step toward understanding how those cells are organized to produce what the brain “sees.” Specifically, they report identification of a gene that guides the separation of two types of motion-sensing cells, offering insight into how cellular layering develops in the retina, with possible implications for the brain’s cerebral cortex. A report on the discovery is published in the Nov. 1 issue of the journal Science.

“The separation of different types of cells into layers is critical to their ability to form the precise sets of connections with each other — the circuitry — that lets us process visual information,” says Alex Kolodkin, Ph.D., a professor in the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine’s Solomon H. Snyder Department of Neuroscience and an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. “There is still much to learn about how that separation happens during development, but we’ve identified for the first time proteins that enable two very similar types of cells to segregate into their own distinct neuronal layers.”

Kolodkin’s research group specializes in studying how circuitry forms among neurons (brain and nerve cells). Past experiments revealed that two types of proteins, called semaphorins and plexins, help guide this process. In the current study, Lu Sun, a graduate student in Kolodkin’s laboratory, focused on the genes that carry the blueprint for these proteins in two of the 10 layers of cells in the mammalian retina.

Those two layers are made up of so-called starburst amacrine cells (SACs). One type of SAC, known as “Off,” detects motion by sensing decreases in the amount of light hitting the retina, while the other type, “On,” detects increases in light. Sun examined the amounts of several semaphorin and plexin proteins being made by each type of cell, and found that only the “On” SACs were making a semaphorin called Sema6A. Sema6A can only work in the retina by interacting with its receptor, a plexin called PlexA2, but Sun found both types of SAC were churning out roughly equal amounts of PlexA2.

Reasoning that Sema6A might be the key difference that enabled the “On” and “Off” SACs to segregate from one another, Kolodkin’s team analyzed mice in which the genes for either Sema6A, PlexA2 or both could be switched off, and looked at the effects of this manipulation on their retinas. “Knocking out” either gene during development led the “On” and “Off” layers to run together, the team found, and caused abnormalities in the “On” SACs’ tree-like extensions. However, the “Off” SACs, which hadn’t been using their Sema6A gene in the first place, still looked and functioned normally.

“When signaling between Sema6A and PlexA2 was lost, not only was layering compromised, but the ‘On’ SACs lost both their distinctive symmetrical appearance, and, importantly, their motion-detecting ability,” Sun says. “This is evidence that the beautiful symmetric shape that gives starburst amacrine cells their name is necessary for their function.”

Adds Kolodkin, “We hope that learning how layering occurs in these very specific cell types will help us begin sorting out how connections are made not just in the retina, but also in neurons throughout the nervous system. Layering also occurs in the cerebral cortex, for example, which is responsible for thought and consciousness, and we really want to know how this is organized during neural development.”

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