Effect of nonlinear summation of synaptic currents on the input-output properties of spinal motoneurons

J Neurophysiol. 2005 Nov;94(5):3465-78. doi: 10.1152/jn.00439.2005. Epub 2005 Aug 3.


A single spinal motoneuron receives tens of thousands of synapses. The neurotransmitters released by many of these synapses act on iontotropic receptors and alter the driving potential of neighboring synapses. This interaction introduces an intrinsic nonlinearity in motoneuron input-output properties where the response to two simultaneous inputs is less than the linear sum of the responses to each input alone. Our goal was to determine the impact of this nonlinearity on the current delivered to the soma during activation of predetermined numbers and distributions of excitatory and inhibitory synapses. To accomplish this goal we constructed compartmental models constrained by detailed measurements of the geometry of the dendritic trees of three feline motoneurons. The current "lost" as a result of local changes in driving potential was substantial and resulted in a highly nonlinear relationship between the number of active synapses and the current reaching the soma. Background synaptic activity consisting of a balanced activation of excitatory and inhibitory synapses further decreased the current delivered to the soma, but reduced the nonlinearity with respect to the total number of active excitatory synapses. Unexpectedly, simulations that mimicked experimental measures of nonlinear summation, activation of two sets of excitatory synapses, resulted in nearly linear summation. This result suggests that nonlinear summation can be difficult to detect, despite the substantial "loss" of current arising from nonlinear summation. The magnitude of this "loss" appears to limit motoneuron activity, based solely on activation of iontotropic receptors, to levels that are inadequate to generate functionally meaningful muscle forces.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cats
  • Computer Simulation
  • Differential Threshold / physiology
  • Excitatory Postsynaptic Potentials / physiology*
  • Membrane Potentials / physiology*
  • Models, Neurological*
  • Motor Neurons / physiology*
  • Neural Inhibition / physiology
  • Nonlinear Dynamics
  • Spinal Cord / physiology*
  • Synapses / physiology*
  • Synaptic Transmission / physiology*