Single-unit analysis of the pallidum, thalamus and subthalamic nucleus in parkinsonian patients

Neuroscience. 2000;96(3):549-64. doi: 10.1016/s0306-4522(99)00583-7.


Microelectrode-guided stereotactic operations performed in 29 parkinsonian patients allowed the recording of 86 cells located in the globus pallidus and 563 in thalamic nuclei. In the globus pallidus, the average firing rate was significantly higher in the internal (91+/-52 Hz) than in the external (60+/-21 Hz) subdivision. This difference was further accentuated when the average firing rate in the external subdivision was compared with that of the internal part of the internal subdivision (114+/-30 Hz). A rhythmic modulation in globus pallidus activities was observed in 19.7% of the cells, and this only during rest tremor episodes. In these cases, modulation frequency of unit activities was not statistically different from the rest tremor frequency (average: 4.6+/-0.5 vs 4. 4+/-0.4 Hz, respectively). In the medial thalamus, four types of unit activities could be defined. A sporadic type was mainly found in the parvocellular division of the mediodorsal nucleus (96.8% of the cells recorded) and in the centre median-parafascicular complex (74.2%). Two other types of activities characterized by random or rhythmic bursts fulfilling the extracellular criteria of low-threshold calcium spike bursts were concentrated in the central lateral nucleus (62.3%) and the paralamellar division of the mediodorsal nucleus (34.1%). These activities could be recorded independently of the presence of a rest tremor. When a tremor episode occurred, the rhythmic low-threshold calcium spike bursts had an interburst frequency similar to rest tremor frequency, although they were not synchronized with it. The fourth type, the so-called tremor locked, was also characterized by rhythmic bursts which, however, did not display low-threshold calcium spike burst properties. These bursts occurred only when a rest tremor was present and was in-phase with the electromyographic bursts. All tremor-locked cells were located in the centre median-parafascicular complex. In the lateral thalamus, cells exhibiting random or rhythmic low-threshold calcium spike bursts were found preponderantly in the ventral anterior nucleus (53.4%) and in the ventral lateral anterior nucleus (52.7%). Tremor-locked units were confined to the ventral division of the ventral lateral posterior nucleus (35.4%). None of the random or rhythmic low-threshold calcium spike bursting units responded to somatosensory stimuli or voluntary movements, either in the medial or in the lateral thalamus. The presence of low-threshold calcium spike bursts at the thalamic level, together with the paucity (8%) of responses to voluntary movements compared to what is found in normal non-human primates, demonstrate a pathological state of inhibition due to the overactivity of the internal subdivision of the globus pallidus units. Activities of the thalamic cells producing low-threshold calcium spike bursts are not synchronized with each other or with the tremor. However, this does not exclude a causal role of these activities in the generation of tremor. Indeed, it has been demonstrated that even random electrical stimulations of the rolandic cortex in parkinsonian patients induce tremor episodes, probably due to the triggering of rhythmic, low-threshold calcium spike-dependent, thalamocortical activities. Similarly, low-threshold calcium spike bursts could be at the origin of rigidity and dystonia through an activation of the supplementary motor area and of akinesia when reaching the pre-supplementary motor area. We conclude that the intrinsic oscillatory properties of individual neurons, combined with the dynamic properties of the thalamocortical circuitry, are responsible for the three cardinal parkinsonian symptoms.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Action Potentials
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Calcium / physiology
  • Electromyography
  • Electrophysiology / instrumentation
  • Globus Pallidus / physiopathology*
  • Humans
  • Microelectrodes
  • Middle Aged
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Parkinson Disease / physiopathology*
  • Subthalamic Nucleus / physiopathology*
  • Thalamic Nuclei / physiopathology*


  • Calcium