In the mammalian retina, bipolar cells and ganglion cells which stratify in sublamina a of the inner plexiform layer (IPL) show OFF responses to light stimuli while those that stratify in sublamina b show ON responses. This functional relationship between anatomy and physiology is a key principle of retinal organization. However, there are at least three types of retinal neurons, including intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (ipRGCs) and dopaminergic amacrine cells, which violate this principle. These cell types have light-driven ON responses, but their dendrites mainly stratify in sublamina a of the IPL, the OFF sublayer. Recent anatomical studies suggested that certain ON cone bipolar cells make axonal or ectopic synapses as they descend through sublamina a, thus providing ON input to cells which stratify in the OFF sublayer. Using immunoelectron microscopy with 3-dimensional reconstruction, we have identified axonal synapses of ON cone bipolar cells in the rabbit retina. Ten calbindin ON cone bipolar axons made en passant ribbon synapses onto amacrine or ganglion dendrites in sublamina a of the IPL. Compared to the ribbon synapses made by bipolar terminals, these axonal ribbon synapses were characterized by a broad postsynaptic element that appeared as a monad and by the presence of multiple short synaptic ribbons. These findings confirm that certain ON cone bipolar cells can provide ON input to amacrine and ganglion cells whose dendrites stratify in the OFF sublayer via axonal synapses. The monadic synapse with multiple ribbons may be a diagnostic feature of the ON cone bipolar axonal synapse in sublamina a. The presence of multiple ribbons and a broad postsynaptic density suggest these structures may be very efficient synapses. We also identified axonal inputs to ipRGCs with the architecture described above.
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