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We describe a novel method for visualizing the network of axons in the unlabeled fresh wholemount retina. The intrinsic radiation of second harmonic generation (SHG) was utilized to visualize single axons of all major retinal neurons, i.e., photoreceptors, horizontal cells, bipolar cells, amacrine cells, and the retinal ganglion cells. The cell types of SHG + axons were determined using transgenic GFP/YFP mice. New findings were obtained with retinal SHG imaging: Müller cells do not maintain uniformly polarized microtubules in the processes; SHG + axons of bipolar cells terminate in the inner plexiform layer (IPL) in a subtype-specific manner; a subset of amacrine cells, presumably the axon-bearing types, emits SHG; and the axon-like neurites of amacrine cells provide a cytoskeletal scaffolding for the IPL stratification. To demonstrate the utility, retinal SHG imaging was applied to testing whether the inner retina is preserved in glaucoma, using DBA/2 mice as a model of glaucoma and DBA/2- Gpnmb + as the nonglaucomatous control. It was found that the morphology of the inner retina was largely intact in glaucoma and the presynaptic compartments to the retinal ganglion cells were uncompromised. It proves retinal SHG imaging as a promising technology for studying the physiological and diseased retinas in 3D.


This work was originally published in PNAS Nexus and can be accessed at

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