Vesicular Release of GABA by Mammalian Horizontal Cells Mediates Inhibitory Output to Photoreceptors

Arlene A. Hirano, Helen E. Vuong, Helen L. Kornmann, Cataldo Schietroma, Salvatore L. Stella, Steven Barnes, Nicholas C. Brecha

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


Feedback inhibition by horizontal cells regulates rod and cone photoreceptor calcium channels that control their release of the neurotransmitter glutamate. This inhibition contributes to synaptic gain control and the formation of the center-surround antagonistic receptive fields passed on to all downstream neurons, which is important for contrast sensitivity and color opponency in vision. In contrast to the plasmalemmal GABA transporter found in non-mammalian horizontal cells, there is evidence that the mechanism by which mammalian horizontal cells inhibit photoreceptors involves the vesicular release of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA. Historically, inconsistent findings of GABA and its biosynthetic enzyme, L-glutamate decarboxylase (GAD) in horizontal cells, and the apparent lack of surround response block by GABAergic agents diminished support for GABA's role in feedback inhibition. However, the immunolocalization of the vesicular GABA transporter (VGAT) in the dendritic and axonal endings of horizontal cells that innervate photoreceptor terminals suggested GABA was released via vesicular exocytosis. To test the idea that GABA is released from vesicles, we localized GABA and GAD, multiple SNARE complex proteins, synaptic vesicle proteins, and Cav channels that mediate exocytosis to horizontal cell dendritic tips and axonal terminals. To address the perceived relative paucity of synaptic vesicles in horizontal cell endings, we used conical electron tomography on mouse and guinea pig retinas that revealed small, clear-core vesicles, along with a few clathrin-coated vesicles and endosomes in horizontal cell processes within photoreceptor terminals. Some small-diameter vesicles were adjacent to the plasma membrane and plasma membrane specializations. To assess vesicular release, a functional assay involving incubation of retinal slices in luminal VGAT-C antibodies demonstrated vesicles fused with the membrane in a depolarization- and calcium-dependent manner, and these labeled vesicles can fuse multiple times. Finally, targeted elimination of VGAT in horizontal cells resulted in a loss of tonic, autaptic GABA currents, and of inhibitory feedback modulation of the cone photoreceptor Cai, consistent with the elimination of GABA release from horizontal cell endings. These results in mammalian retina identify the central role of vesicular release of GABA from horizontal cells in the feedback inhibition of photoreceptors.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number600777
JournalFrontiers in Cellular Neuroscience
StatePublished - Dec 1 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by grants from the NIH EY04067 (NB), NIH EY15573 (NB), NIH EY29869 (NB), VA Merit Award (NB), VA Senior Career Scientist Award (NB), Plum Foundation (SB), Unrestricted Grant from Research to Prevent Blindness, Inc. (UCLA Dept. of Ophthalmology); Jules Stein Eye Institute EyeSTAR Program (HK); NIH T32 EY007026 (HV).

Publisher Copyright:
© Copyright © 2020 Hirano, Vuong, Kornmann, Schietroma, Stella, Barnes and Brecha.


  • GABA
  • exocytosis
  • horizontal cell
  • retina
  • tonic current


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