Driver or coincidence detector: modal switch of a corticothalamic giant synapse controlled by spontaneous activity and short-term depression

J Neurosci. 2008 Sep 24;28(39):9652-63. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1554-08.2008.


Giant synapses between layer 5B (L5B) neurons of somatosensory (barrel) cortex and neurons of the posteromedial nucleus (POm) of thalamus reside in a key position of the cortico-thalamo-cortical (CTC) loop, yet their synaptic properties and contribution to CTC information processing remain poorly understood. Fluorescence-guided local stimulation of terminals were combined with postsynaptic whole-cell recordings in thalamus to study synaptic transmission at an identified giant synapse. We found large EPSCs mediated by Ca(2+)-permeable AMPA and NMDA receptors. A single presynaptic electrical stimulus evoked a train of postsynaptic action potentials, indicating that a single L5B input can effectively drive the thalamic neuron. Repetitive stimulation caused strong short-term depression (STD) with fast recovery. To examine how these synaptic properties affect information transfer, spontaneous and evoked activity of L5B neurons was recorded in vivo and played back to giant terminals in vitro. We found that suprathreshold synaptic transmission was suppressed because of spontaneous activity causing strong STD of the L5B-POm giant synapse. Thalamic neurons only spiked after intervals of presynaptic silence or when costimulating two giant terminals. Therefore, STD caused by spontaneous activity of L5B neurons can switch the synapse from a "driver mode" to a "coincidence mode." Mechanisms decreasing spontaneous activity in L5B neurons and inputs synchronized by a sensory stimulus may thus gate the cortico-thalamo-cortical loop.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Animals, Newborn
  • Calcium / metabolism
  • Cell Line, Transformed
  • Cerebral Cortex / cytology*
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Radiation
  • Electric Stimulation / methods
  • Excitatory Amino Acid Antagonists / pharmacology
  • Excitatory Postsynaptic Potentials / physiology
  • Excitatory Postsynaptic Potentials / radiation effects
  • Humans
  • In Vitro Techniques
  • Luminescent Agents / metabolism
  • Models, Neurological*
  • Neural Inhibition / physiology*
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology*
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Patch-Clamp Techniques
  • Rats
  • Rats, Wistar
  • Synapses / classification
  • Synapses / physiology*
  • Synaptic Transmission / drug effects
  • Synaptic Transmission / physiology
  • Thalamus / cytology*
  • Transfection / methods


  • Excitatory Amino Acid Antagonists
  • Luminescent Agents
  • Calcium