A surprisingly large number of neurons throughout the brain are endowed with the ability to co-release both a fast excitatory and inhibitory transmitter. The computational benefits of dual transmitter release, however, remain poorly understood. Here, we address the role of co-transmission of acetylcholine (ACh) and GABA from starburst amacrine cells (SACs) to direction-selective ganglion cells (DSGCs). Using a combination of pharmacology, optogenetics, and linear regression methods, we estimated the spatiotemporal profiles of GABA, ACh, and glutamate receptor-mediated synaptic activity in DSGCs evoked by motion. We found that ACh initiates responses to motion in natural scenes or under low-contrast conditions. In contrast, classical glutamatergic pathways play a secondary role, amplifying cholinergic responses via NMDA receptor activation. Furthermore, under these conditions, the network of SACs differentially transmits ACh and GABA to DSGCs in a directional manner. Thus, mixed transmission plays a central role in shaping directional responses of DSGCs.
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