On-Off Direction-Selective Ganglion Cell

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an ON-OFF direction-selective ganglion cell reconstructed in EyeWire

Direction selective (DS) cells in the retina are neurons that respond differentially to the direction of a visual stimulus. The term is used to describe a group of neurons that preferentially "gives a vigorous discharge of impulses when a stimulus is moved through its receptive field in one direction." [1] There are three known types of DS cells in the vertebrate retina of the mouse, ON/OFF DS Ganglion Cells, ON DS Ganglion Cells (which respond to the leading edge of a bright stimulus) and OFF DS Ganglion Cells (which respond only to the trailing edge of a bright stimulus). Each has a distinctive physiology and anatomy.[2] The rest of this page will only apply to ON/OFF DS Ganglion Cells.


Diagram showing the response of ON/OFF DSGC to stimulus in the null and preferred direction. Inputs are multiplied in the preferred direction, and suppressed in the null direction.[3]

ON/OFF DSGCs act as local motion detectors. If a bright stimulus (e.g., a light) is moving in the direction of the cell's preference, the cell will fire at both the leading and trailing edge. An important contrast is that bright stimuli moving opposite the preferred direction (called the null direction), elicit little or no response [2]. The response to stimulus is independent of many stimulus properties, including size, shape, color, and speed. These cells have a center-surround structure, and the size of the dendrite correlates with the size of the center receptive field. [1]

ON/OFF DSGCs can be divided into 4 subtypes differing in their directional preference, ventral, dorsal, nasal, or temporal. The cells of different subtypes also differ in their dendritic structure and synaptic targets in the brain.[4]

From the early experiments in the 1960s, it was shown that receptive fields are fairly large, sensitive to small changes, and direction-selective subunits are repeated many times throughout the retina.[1]


Image of an On-Off Direction-Selective Ganglion Cell[5].

The ON/OFF DSGCs are commonly recognized by their bistratified dendritic arbors, which extend to two layers of the inner plexiform layer (IPL). These cell types are also known to synapse with both bipolar cells and starburst amacrine cells (SAC). As described above, there are four cell subtypes, each with own preference for direction. Each subtype of ON/OFF DSGCs has differences in dendritic patterns and axonal projections to the brain. These differences indicate that outputs from different subtypes may wire to different parts of the brain [4]

Depiction of six reconstructed ON/OFFDSGCs. Figure A shows the bistratification of the ON and OFF arbors. Colors correspond to orientation of preferred direction. Figure B shows a bottom view of the traced arbors.[6]


Excitation comes from both bipolar cells and starburst amacrine cells.[5] The main source of inhibition is from starburst amacrine cells. Using manual reconstruction of 6 ON/OFF DSGCs and their synaptic partners, it was found that over 90% of SAC – ON/OFF DSGC synapses were oriented in the null direction.[6]

As illustrated in the accompanying figure, light enters the retina through the photoreceptors, and excitatory inputs are transmitted to the ON/OFF DSGCs via Glutamate and Acetylcholine from the bipolar and starburst amacrine cells. Inhibitory GABA inputs, which are crucial for suppressing information in the null direction (and thereby creating a direction-selective motion detector) are received from SACs. The motion detection result is fed to higher parts of the brain for further processing.

Depiction of the circuitry surrounding a ON/OFF DSGC [5]
Figure showing how ON/OFF DSGCs can be distinguished from other RGCs. As described in the text, this is accomplished using CART; a careful morphological analysis confirms that this marker correctly identifies the ON/OFF DSGCs with no false positives. [4]


As described above, ON/OFF DS ganglion cells can be divided into 4 subtypes differing in their directional preference, ventral, dorsal, nasal, or temporal. Recent research has identified markers for distinguishing between the different subtypes, and for separating ON/OFF DSGCs from other retinal ganglion cells. These markers are independent of experience, and suggest a method for how these cells obtain different inputs.

Recent research has lead to the development of transgenic mouse lines that selectively mark ON/OFF DSGCs that prefer ventral or nasal motion and another line that marks ventral and dorsal preferring DSGCs. These lines were used to identify cell surface molecules (including Cadherin 6, CollagenXXV1, and Matrix metalloprotease 17), that allow each of the four types of ON/OFF DSGCs to be differentiated. A neuropeptide, CART (cocaine and amphetamine regulated transcript) has been found to differentiate ON/OFF DSGCs from all other retinal ganglion cells. Strikingly, these patterns of molecular differentiation occur before animal eye-opening, and demonstrate that these differences are experience-independent. Therefore, the molecular differences may help to explain the differing functionality between subtypes. [4]


The firing pattern of On-Off Direction-Selective Ganglion cells is time-dependent and is supported by the Reichardt- Hassenstain model, which detects spatiotemporal correlation between two adjacent cells [2].

File:Reichardt model.jpg
Graphic explaining the Reichardt-Hassenstain model [2]

As applied to the visual system, this model considers the processed stimulus(i.e., light) inputs to two adjacent cells. After a time delay, each delayed input is multiplied by the original signal from the other cell. The resulting signals are subtracted, and the positive outcome indicates the preferred direction [2].

This behavior was validated in the visual system using calcium imaging in the fly [7]. However, this model correspondence has only been completed at a high-level (input-output), rather than at an anatomical or physiological level.[5]


Direction Selective units were first explored in cats by Hubel and Wiesel in 1959. Levick and Barlow performed many of the seminal early experiments related to direction selectivity during the 1960s using rabbit retina [1]. In these experiments, they measured action potentials generated from a black-white grating with a small slit [2]. Many additional experiments have been performed during the past fifty years in organisms as diverse as the turtle (e.g., Marchiafava 1979) and the mouse (Briggman 2011).


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 H. B. Barlow and W. R. Levick (1965) The Mechanism of Directionally Selective Units in Rabbit's Retina J. Physiol. 178: 477-504
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 "Motion Sensing in Vision." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Motion_Sensing_in_Vision (Accessed April 02, 2012).
  3. D. I. Vaney, B. Sivyer, and W. R. Taylor (2012). Direction selectivity in the retina: symmetry and asymmetry in structure and function. Nature Neuroscience 13 (3): 194-208
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 J. N. Kay et al. (2011) Retinal ganglion cells with distinct directional preferences differ in molecular identity, structure, and central projections. J. Neurosci. 31 (21): 7753-7762 doi: 10.1523/​JNEUROSCI.0907-11.2011
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 A. Borst and T. Euler (2011). €œSeeing Things in Motion: Models, Circuits, and Mechanisms. Neuron 71 (6): 974-994 doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2011.08.031
  6. 6.0 6.1 K. L. Briggman, M. Helmstaedter, and W. Denk (2011). Wiring specificity in the direction-selectivity circuit of the retina Nature 471: 183–188
  7. J. Haag (2004). €œFly Motion Vision Is Based on Reichardt Detectors Regardless of the Signal-to-noise Ratio. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 101 (46): 16333-16338 doi: 10.1073/pnas.0407368101