A new cellular mechanism for coupling inputs arriving at different cortical layers

Nature. 1999 Mar 25;398(6725):338-41. doi: 10.1038/18686.


Pyramidal neurons in layer 5 of the neocortex of the brain extend their axons and dendrites into all layers. They are also unusual in having both an axonal and a dendritic zone for the initiation of action potentials. Distal dendritic inputs, which normally appear greatly attenuated at the axon, must cross a high threshold at the dendritic initiation zone to evoke calcium action potentials but can then generate bursts of axonal action potentials. Here we show that a single back-propagating sodium action potential generated in the axon facilitates the initiation of these calcium action potentials when it coincides with distal dendritic input within a time window of several milliseconds. Inhibitory dendritic input can selectively block the initiation of dendritic calcium action potentials, preventing bursts of axonal action potentials. Thus, excitatory and inhibitory postsynaptic potentials arising in the distal dendrites can exert significantly greater control over action potential initiation in the axon than would be expected from their electrotonically isolated locations. The coincidence of a single back-propagating action potential with a subthreshold distal excitatory postsynaptic potential to evoke a burst of axonal action potentials represents a new mechanism by which the main cortical output neurons can associate inputs arriving at different cortical layers.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Action Potentials
  • Animals
  • Axons / physiology
  • Calcium / physiology
  • Cerebral Cortex / cytology
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology*
  • Dendrites / physiology
  • Electrophysiology
  • Excitatory Postsynaptic Potentials
  • In Vitro Techniques
  • Interneurons / physiology
  • Neural Pathways / physiology*
  • Pyramidal Cells / physiology*
  • Rats
  • Rats, Wistar
  • Sodium / physiology


  • Sodium
  • Calcium