Dendritic changes in Ca2+ (lower traces), but not voltage (upper), depends on stimulus direction (arrows).


Aclass of neurons known as starburst amacrine cells compute the direction of a visual stimulus, according to new results from Thomas Euler, Peter Detwiler (University of Washington, Seattle, WA), and Winfried Denk (Max Planck Institute for Medical Research, Heidelberg, Germany). The experiments show that starburst dendrites signal independently of the electrical activity of the soma, an ability that dendrites of other neurons may share.

Starburst cells are radially symmetric interneurons with synaptic outputs and inputs coexisting on neuronal processes, called dendrites. Based on their position in the retina, starburst amacrine cells have been hypothesized to activate directionally selective ganglion cells. Genetic experiments have supported this theory, but how the cells calculate direction was unknown.

Now, the power of these cells to use Ca2+ to report direction is shown. Euler et al. found that, unlike membrane voltage in the soma, dendritic Ca2+ signals are directionally selective. Larger Ca2+ increases were evoked by light moving outward from the cell soma to the end of the dendrites, where synaptic outputs are clustered, than were evoked by the same stimulus moving toward the soma. Thus, a starburst dendrite acts as an independent module to compute stimulus direction. How different Ca2+ responses are generated based on direction is unclear. Possibly, the specific dendrite morphology promotes temporal summation of the signal when the stimulus moves toward the periphery, but not in the reverse direction. ▪


Euler, T., et al. 2002. Nature. 10.1038/nature00931.