Spatiotemporally graded NMDA spike/plateau potentials in basal dendrites of neocortical pyramidal neurons

J Neurophysiol. 2008 May;99(5):2584-601. doi: 10.1152/jn.00011.2008. Epub 2008 Mar 12.


Glutamatergic inputs clustered over approximately 20-40 microm can elicit local N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) spike/plateau potentials in terminal dendrites of cortical pyramidal neurons, inspiring the notion that a single terminal dendrite can function as a decision-making computational subunit. A typical terminal basal dendrite is approximately 100-200 microm long: could it function as multiple decision-making subunits? We test this by sequential focal stimulation of multiple sites along terminal basal dendrites of layer 5 pyramidal neurons in rat somatosensory cortical brain slices, using iontophoresis or uncaging of brief glutamate pulses. There was an approximately sevenfold spatial gradient in average spike/plateau amplitude measured at the soma, from approximately 3 mV for distal inputs to approximately 23 mV for proximal inputs. Spike/plateaus were NMDA receptor (NMDAR) conductance-dominated at all locations. Large Ca(2+) transients accompanied spike/plateaus over a approximately 10- to 40-microm zone around the input site; smaller Ca(2+) transients extended approximately uniformly to the dendritic tip. Spike/plateau duration grew with increasing glutamate and depolarization; high Ca(2+) zone size grew with spike/plateau duration. The minimum high Ca(2+) zone half-width (just above NMDA spike threshold) increased from distal (approximately 10 microm) to proximal locations (approximately 25 microm), as did the NMDA spike glutamate threshold. Depolarization reduced glutamate thresholds. Simulations exploring multi-site interactions based on this demonstrate that if appropriately timed and localized inputs occur in vivo, a single basal dendrite could correspond to a cascade of multiple co-operating dynamic decision-making subunits able to retain information for hundreds of milliseconds, with increasing influence on neural output from distal to proximal. Dendritic NMDA spike/plateaus are thus well-suited to support graded persistent firing.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms
  • Animals
  • Calcium Signaling
  • Computer Simulation
  • Data Interpretation, Statistical
  • Dendrites / physiology*
  • Electrophysiology
  • Glutamic Acid / metabolism
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Iontophoresis
  • Models, Neurological
  • Neocortex / cytology
  • Neocortex / physiology*
  • Pyramidal Cells / physiology*
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Receptors, AMPA / physiology
  • Receptors, N-Methyl-D-Aspartate / physiology*


  • Receptors, AMPA
  • Receptors, N-Methyl-D-Aspartate
  • Glutamic Acid