In excitable tissue, to which the brain and the retina belong, propagating excitation waves can be expected, and the spreading depression is such a phenomenon. It has been first observed in the forties of the last century. Later, Martins-Ferreira established it in the chicken retina (retinal spreading depression or RSD). The electrophysiological characteristics of it are identical with those of the cortical SD. The metabolic differences are known and can be taken into account. The experimental advantage of the RSD compared to the cortical SD is the pronounced intrinsic optical signal (IOS) associated with the travelling wave. This is due to the maximum transparency of retinal tissue in the functional state; thus any physiological event will change it markedly and therefore can be easily seen even by naked eye. The theory can explain wave spread in one (action potentials), two (RSDs) and three dimensions (one heart beat).
In this review we present the experimental and the excitable media context for the data interpretation using as example the cholinergic pharmacology in relation to functional syndromes. We also discuss the intrinsic optical signal and how to use it pre-clinical research.