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Senior Investigator

Ralph Nelson, Ph.D.

Neural Circuits Unit

Basic Neurosciences Program, NINDS
Building 5625 Room 4S-26F
5625 Fishers Lane
Rockville MD 20852
Office: (301) 496-8133
Lab: (301) 496-8133
Fax: 301-594-2276

Dr. Nelson received his B.A. in Biophysics from Amherst College and his Ph. D. in Biophysics from Johns Hopkins University. At Johns Hopkins, under the preceptorship of John Dowling, he studied conductance mechanisms responsible for light responses of retinal bipolar cells. In his postdoctoral studies at the National Institutes of Health he formed a close collaboration with Helga Kolb in pioneering a type of study in which the light responses of retinal neurons were tightly interpreted in terms of synaptic connectivity. Dr. Nelson's laboratory is currently investigating the neural circuitry for image processing in zebrafish retina.

One of the more spectacular feats of nerve cells is extracting information from light. The retina is a light sensitive neural tissue at the back of the eye that performs this task. The retina is composed of a network of nerve cells which receive, process and transform visual information. Visual information is transduced by photoreceptors and processed by numerous retinal interneurons before transmission through optic nerve fibers to brain visual centers. During periods of dim illumination specialized bipolar and amacrine cells selectively process signals from rod photoreceptors. There are other bipolar and amacrine cells which process signals from cone photoreceptors when the visual scene is brightly illuminated. Some neurons are excited by bright contours (ON-center bipolar and ganglion cells). Others are excited by dark contours (OFF-center bipolar and ganglion cells). The goal of studies in the Neural Circuitry Unit is to define systems of neurons devoted to selective visual tasks, and to identify the synaptic mechanisms they employ. Drs. Kolb, Fernandez, and Nelson edit 'WEBVISION', an online tutorial on retinal neural circuitry and function.

The zebrafish model has recently been employed in studies of color vision circuitry. Retinal horizontal cells, which are directly post-synaptic to cones, integrate signals from red, green, blue and UV cones. They are capable of complex spectral responses including ultraviolet sensitive types with color opponency. A tetraphasic wavelength response and intracellular stains of horizontal cells are seen in the figures below.

Tetraphasic response of zebrafish retinal horizontal cell.

Microelectrode stains of zebrafish horizontal cells.

Staff Image
  • Ciana Deveau, B.S.
    Post Baccalaureate IRTA Student
    (301) 443-5011

  • 1) Li, L., et al (2018)
  • Mutation in the intracellular chloride channel CLCC1 associated with autosomal recessive retinitis pigmentosa
  • PLOS Genetics , 14(8): e1007504
  • 2) Meier, A., R. F. Nelson and V. P. Connaughton (2018)
  • Color processing in zebrafish retina
  • Frontiers in Cellular Neuroscience, 12: 327
  • 3) Torvund, M., T. Ma, V. Connaughton, F. Ono and R. Nelson (2017)
  • Cone signals in monostratified and bistratified amacrine cells of adult zebrafish retina
  • Journal of Comparative Neurology , 525(7), 1532-1557
  • 4) Nelson, R. and V. Connaughton (2012)
  • Bipolar cell pathways in the vertebrate retina. Webvision: The Organization of the Retina and Visual System. H. Kolb, E. Fernandes and R. Nelson.
  • 5) Perlman, I., H. Kolb and R. Nelson (2011)
  • S-Potentials and Horizontal Cells Webvision: The Organization of the Retina and Visual System [Internet]. H. Kolb, E. Fernandez and R. Nelson. Salt Lake City (UT), University of Utah Health Sciences Center.
  • 6) Lewis, A., et al (2011)
  • Celsr3 Is Required for Normal Development of GABA Circuits in the Inner Retina
  • PLoS Genet, 7(8), e1002239
  • 7) Connaughton VP, and Nelson R. (2010)
  • Spectral Responses in Zebrafish Horizontal Cells Include a Tetraphasic Response and a Novel UV-Dominated Triphasic Response
  • J. Neurophysiol, 104(5), 2407-22
  • 8) Nelson RF, and Singla N (2009)
  • A spectral model for signal elements isolated from zebrafish photopic electroretinogram
  • Vis Neurosci, 26, 349-363
  • 9) Pflug, R., R. Nelson, S. Huber and H. Reitsamer (2008)
  • Modulation of horizontal cell function by dopaminergic ligands in mammalian retina
  • Vision Res , 48(12), 1383-1390
  • 10) Connaughton, V. P., D. Graham and R. Nelson (2004)
  • Identification and morphological classification of horizontal, bipolar, and amacrine cells within the zebrafish retina
  • Journal of Comparative Neurology , 477, 371-385
  • 11) Nelson, R. Bender, A. M. and Connaughton, V. P. (2003)
  • Stimulation of sodium pump restores membrane potential to neurons excited by glutamate in zebrafish distal retina
  • J. Physiol, 549, 787-800
  • 12) Connaughton, V. P. and R. Nelson (2000)
  • Axonal stratification patterns and glutamate-gated conductance mechanisms in zebrafish retinal bipolar cells
  • J Physiol, 524(Pt 1), 135-146
  • 13) Kolb, H. and Nelson, R. (1996)
  • Hyperpolarizing, small-field, amacrine cells in cone pathways of cat retina.
  • Journal of Comparative Neurology, 371, 415-436
  • 14) Nelson, R. and Kolb, H. (1985)
  • A17: A broad-field amacrine cell in the rod system of the cat retina.
  • Journal of Neurophysiology, 54, 592-614
  • 15) Mariani, A. P., H. Kolb and R. Nelson (1984)
  • Dopamine-containing amacrine cells of rhesus monkey retina parallel rods in spatial distribution
  • Brain Res , 322(1), 1-7
  • 16) Nelson, R. (1982)
  • AII amacrine cells quicken time course of rod signals in the cat retina
  • J Neurophysiol , 47(5), 928-947
  • 17) Nelson, R., Famiglietti, E. V. Jr., and Kolb H. (1978)
  • Intracellular staining reveals different levels of stratification for on- and off-center ganglion cells in the cat retina.
  • J. Neurophysiol., 41, 472-483
  • 18) Nelson, R. (1977)
  • Cat cones have rod input: a comparison of the response properties of cones and horizontal cell bodies in the retina of the cat.
  • Journal of Comparative Neurology, 172, 109-136
  • 19) Nelson, R., A. von Lützow, H. Kolb and P. Gouras (1975)
  • Horizontal cells in cat retina with independent dendritic systems
  • Science, 189(4197), 137-139
  • 20) Nelson, R. (1973)
  • A comparison of electrical properties of neurons in Necturus retina
  • J Neurophysiol , 36(3): 519-535
  • 21) Nelson, R., J. Kim deRiel and A. Kropf (1970)
  • 13-Desmethyl rhodopsin and 13-desmethyl isorhodopsin: visual pigment analogues
  • Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences , 66(2), 531-538
  • 22) Journal of the American Chemical Society (1968)
  • Effect of pH on the rates of hydrolysis of three acylated dipeptides by pepsin
  • 90(2), 479-486
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