Visual processing starts in the retina. Within only two synaptic layers, a large number of parallel information channels emerge, each encoding a highly processed feature like edges or the direction of motion. Much of this functional diversity arises in the inner plexiform layer, where inhibitory amacrine cells modulate the excitatory signal of bipolar and ganglion cells. Studies investigating individual amacrine cell circuits like the starburst or A17 circuit have demonstrated that single types can possess specific morphological and functional adaptations to convey a particular function in one or a small number of inner retinal circuits. However, the interconnected and often stereotypical network formed by different types of amacrine cells across the inner plexiform layer prompts that they should be also involved in more general computations. In line with this notion, different recent studies systematically analysing inner retinal signalling at a population level provide evidence that general functions of the ensemble of amacrine cells across types are critical for establishing universal principles of retinal computation like parallel processing or motion anticipation. Combining recent advances in the development of indicators for imaging inhibition with large-scale morphological and genetic classifications will help to further our understanding of how single amacrine cell circuits act together to help decompose the visual scene into parallel information channels. In this review, we aim to summarise the current state-of-the-art in our understanding of how general features of amacrine cell inhibition lead to general features of computation.
General and specific functions of amacrine cells A, in the inner retina, inhibitory wide-field (red) and small-field (orange) amacrine cells modulate the visual signal of bipolar and ganglion cells. Arrows indicate main signal flow. B, single amacrine cell types mediate specific functions in individual microscircuits. C, in addition, the dense network of amacrine cells across types might convey general computations to different types of postsynaptic neurons.