The first synapse of the retina plays a fundamental role in the visual system. Due to its importance, it is critical that it encodes information from the outside world with the greatest accuracy and precision possible. Cone photoreceptor axon terminals contain many individual synaptic sites, each represented by a presynaptic structure called a ‘ribbon’. These synapses are both highly sophisticated and conserved. Each ribbon relays the light signal to one ON cone bipolar cell and several OFF cone bipolar cells, while two dendritic processes from a GABAergic interneuron, the horizontal cell, modulate the cone output via parallel feedback mechanisms. The presence of these three partners within a single synapse has raised numerous questions, and its anatomical and functional complexity is still only partially understood. However, the understanding of this synapse has recently evolved, as a consequence of progress in understanding dendritic signal processing and its role in facilitating global versus local signalling. Indeed, for the downstream retinal network, dendritic processing in horizontal cells may be essential, as they must support important functional operations such as contrast enhancement, which requires spatial averaging of the photoreceptor array, while at the same time preserving accurate spatial information. Here, we review recent progress made towards a better understanding of the cone synapse, with an emphasis on horizontal cell function, and discuss why such complexity might be necessary for early visual processing.
Schematic representation of the synapses between cones and a horizontal cell. Left, for simplicity, only HC dendrites (red) and one synaptic site per cone axon terminal (purple) are shown. Right, magnification from box in left panel: Different hypothesised synaptic communication pathways between cone axon terminals and horizontal cell dendrites. The arrows indicate the spatial spread of signals between the synaptic partners. C, cone; HC, horizontal cell.