Signal enhancement in distal cortical dendrites by means of interactions between active dendritic spines

Pyramidal neurons in the cerebral cortex characteristically give rise to an apical dendrite, whose distal dendritic branches in layer I are covered with spines. These spines are known to be sites of synaptic connections, but the physiological properties of the spines and the functional significance of their responses are still largely unknown. The main function attributed thus far to these synaptic responses, situated at a great distance from the neuronal cell body, is slow background modulation of impulse output in the axon. In pursuing computer simulation analysis of electrical properties of dendrites, we have obtained results suggesting interactions between distal dendritic spines. If the heads of dendritic spines have excitable membrane properties, the spread of current from one or several spines could bring adjacent spines to their thresholds for impulse generation. This could give rise to a sequence of spine head action potentials, representing a saltatory propagation, from one or more excitable spine heads to nearby excitable spine heads, in the distal dendritic branches. Both the amplification due to several spine action potentials and the possibility of propagation into more proximal branches would increase the efficacy of distal synaptic inputs. Because of nonlinear dependence upon several modifiable parameters (such as spine stem resistance and membrane excitability) and upon the spatio-temporal pattern of synaptic input, such contingent synaptic enhancement would be particularly relevant to cortical functions underlying information processing and to plasticity underlying learning and memory.

Authors: Shepherd GM, Brayton RK, Miller JP, Segev I, Rinzel J, Rall W.
Year of publication: 1985
Journal: Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1985 Apr;82(7):2192-5.

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