How voltage-gated ion channels alter the functional properties of ganglion and amacrine cell dendrites

R. F. Miller, K. Stenback, D. Henderson, M. Sikora

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


The present study compares the structure and function of retinal ganglion and amacrine cell dendrites. Although a superficial similarity exists between amacrine and ganglion cell dendrites, a comparison between the branching pattern of the two cell types reveals differences which can only be appreciated at the microscopic level. Whereas decremental branching is found in ganglion cells, a form of non-decremental or "trunk branching" is observed in amacrine cell dendrites. Physiological differences are also observed in amacrine vs ganglion cells in which many amacrine cells generate dendritic impulses which can be readily distinguished from those of the soma, while separate dendritic impulses in ganglion cell dendrites have not been reported. Despite these differences, both amacrine and ganglion cell dendrites appear to contain voltage-gated ion channels, including TTX-sensitive sodium channels. One way to account for separate dendritic impulses in amacrine cells is to have a higher density of sodium channels and we generally find in modeling studies that a dendritic sodium channel density that is more than about 50% of that in the soma is required for excitatory, synaptic currents to give rise to local dendritic spike activity. Under these conditions, impulses can be generated in the dendrites and propagate for some distance along the dendritic tree. When the soma generates impulse activity in amacrine cells, it can activate, antidromically, the entire dendritic tree. Although ganglion cell dendrites do not appear to generate independent impulses, the presence of voltage-gated ion channels in these structures appears to be important for their function. Modeling studies demonstrate that when dendrites lack voltage-gated ion channels, impulse activity evoked by current applied to the cell body is generated at rates that are much higher than those observed physiologically. However, by placing ion channels in the dendrites at a reduced density compared to those of amacrine cells, the firing rate of ganglion cells becomes more physiological and the relationship between frequency and current (F/I relationship) can be precisely matched with physiological data. Recent studies have demonstrated the presence of T- type calcium channels in ganglion cells and our analysis suggests that they are found in higher density in the dendrites compared to the soma. This is the first voltage-gated ion channel which appears more localized to the dendrites than other cell copartments and this difference alone cries for an interpretation. The presence of a significant T-type calcium channel density in the dendrites can influence their integrative properties in several important ways. First, excitatory synaptic currents can be augmented by the activation of T-type calcium channels, although this is more likely to occur for transient rather than sustained synaptic currents because T-type currents show strong inactivation properties. In addition, T-type calcium channels may serve to limit the electrical load which dendrites impose on the spike initiation process and thus enhance the speed with which impulses can be triggered by the impulse generation site. This role whill enhance the safety factor for impulses traveling in the orthograde direction.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)347-359
Number of pages13
JournalArchives Italiennes de Biologie
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2002


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