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Imaging and quantifying ganglion cells and other transparent neurons in the living human retina

  1. Donald T. Millera
  1. aSchool of Optometry, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN 47405;
  2. bPurdue School of Engineering and Technology, Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, Indianapolis, IN 46202
  1. Edited by David R. Williams, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY, and approved October 18, 2017 (received for review June 30, 2017)

Significance

Ganglion cells are the primary building block of retinal neural circuitry, but have been elusive to observe and quantify in the living human eye. Here, we show a light microscopy modality that reveals not only the somas of these cells, but also their 3D packing geometry, primary subtypes, and spatial projection to other neurons. The method provides a glimpse of the rich tapestry of neurons, glia, and blood vessels that compose the retina, thus exposing the anatomical substrate for neural processing of visual information. Clinically, high-resolution images of retinal neurons in living eyes hold promise for improved diagnosis and assessing treatment of ganglion cell and other neuron loss in retinal disease.

Abstract

Ganglion cells (GCs) are fundamental to retinal neural circuitry, processing photoreceptor signals for transmission to the brain via their axons. However, much remains unknown about their role in vision and their vulnerability to disease leading to blindness. A major bottleneck has been our inability to observe GCs and their degeneration in the living human eye. Despite two decades of development of optical technologies to image cells in the living human retina, GCs remain elusive due to their high optical translucency. Failure of conventional imaging—using predominately singly scattered light—to reveal GCs has led to a focus on multiply-scattered, fluorescence, two-photon, and phase imaging techniques to enhance GC contrast. Here, we show that singly scattered light actually carries substantial information that reveals GC somas, axons, and other retinal neurons and permits their quantitative analysis. We perform morphometry on GC layer somas, including projection of GCs onto photoreceptors and identification of the primary GC subtypes, even beneath nerve fibers. We obtained singly scattered images by: (i) marrying adaptive optics to optical coherence tomography to avoid optical blurring of the eye; (ii) performing 3D subcellular image registration to avoid motion blur; and (iii) using organelle motility inside somas as an intrinsic contrast agent. Moreover, through-focus imaging offers the potential to spatially map individual GCs to underlying amacrine, bipolar, horizontal, photoreceptor, and retinal pigment epithelium cells, thus exposing the anatomical substrate for neural processing of visual information. This imaging modality is also a tool for improving clinical diagnosis and assessing treatment of retinal disease.

Footnotes

  • ?1To whom correspondence should be addressed. Email: liuzhuo{at}indiana.edu.
  • Author contributions: Z.L. and D.T.M. conceived and designed the project; Z.L., K.K., and J.J.L. developed image reconstruction, processing, and registration tools; Z.L. contributed new analytic tools, Z.L., K.K., and F.Z. performed the experiments, Z.L., K.K., F.Z., and D.T.M. analyzed the results; Z.L. and D.T.M. wrote the paper and all authors contributed to revisions; and D.T.M. supervised the project.

  • The authors declare no conflict of interest.

  • This article is a PNAS Direct Submission.

  • This article contains supporting information online at www.danielhellerman.com/lookup/suppl/doi:10.1073/pnas.1711734114/-/DCSupplemental.

Online Impact

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