Mechanisms involved in development of retinotectal connections: Roles of Eph receptor tyrosine kinases, NMDA receptors and nitric oxide

A. F. Ernst, W. M. Jurney, S. C. McLoon

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

27 Scopus citations


Axons of retinal ganglion cells exhibit a specific pattern of connections with the brain. Within each visual nucleus in the brain, retinal connections are topographic such that axons from neighboring ganglion cells have neighboring synapses. Research is beginning to shed light on the mechanisms responsible for development of topographic connections in the visual system. Much of this research is focused on the axonal connections of the retina with the tectum. In vivo and in vitro experiments indicate that the pattern of retinotectal connections develops in part due to positional labels carried by the growing retinal axons and by the tectal cells. Evidence suggests that gradients of Eph receptor tyrosine kinases serve as positional labels on the growing retinal axons, and gradients of ligands for these receptors serve as positional labels in the tectum. Blocking expression of EphA3, a receptor tyrosine kinase, in the developing retina resulted in disruption of the topography of the retinotectal connections, further supporting the role of these molecules. Although positional labels appear to be important, other mechanisms must also be involved. The initial pattern of retinotectal connections lacks the precision seen in the adult. The adult pattern of connections arises during development by activity dependent refinement of a roughly ordered prepattern. The refinement process results in elimination of projections to the wrong side of the brain, to non-visual nuclei and to inappropriate regions within a nucleus. Blocking NMDA receptors during the period of refinement preserved anomalous retinotectal projections, which suggests that elimination of these projections is mediated by NMDA receptors. Furthermore, tectal cells normally express high levels of nitric oxide synthase (NOS) during the period of refinement, and blocking nitric oxide (NO) synthesis also preserved inappropriate projections. Thus, both NMDA receptors and NO appear to be involved in refinement. Blocking NMDA receptor activation reduced NOS activity in tectal cells, which suggests the possibility that NO is the downstream mediator of NMDA function related to refinement. A quantitative comparison of blocking NMDA receptors, NO synthesis or both showed that alI three treatments have comparable effects on refinement. This indicates that the role of NMDA receptor activation relative to refinement may be completely mediated through nitric oxide. Quantitative analysis also suggests that other mechanisms not involving NMDA receptors or NO must be involved in refinement. Other mechanisms appear to include cell death.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)115-131
Number of pages17
JournalProgress in Brain Research
StatePublished - 1998


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