Staircase currents in motoneurons: insight into the spatial arrangement of calcium channels in the dendritic tree

J Neurosci. 2009 Apr 22;29(16):5343-53. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.5458-08.2009.


In spinal motoneurons, activation of dendritically located depolarizing conductances can lead to amplification of synaptic inputs and the production of plateau potentials. Immunohistochemical and computational studies have implicated dendritic CaV1.3 channels in this amplification and suggest that CaV1.3 channels in spinal motoneurons may be organized in clusters in the dendritic tree. Our goal was to provide physiological evidence for the presence of multiple discrete clusters of voltage-gated calcium channels in spinal motoneurons and to explore the spatial arrangement of these clusters in the dendritic tree. We recorded voltage-gated calcium currents from spinal motoneurons in slices of mature mouse spinal cords. We demonstrate that single somatic voltage-clamp steps can elicit multiple inward currents with varying delays to onset, resulting in a current with a "staircase"-like appearance. Recordings from cultured dorsal root ganglion cells at different stages of neurite development provide evidence that these currents arise from the unclamped portions of the dendritic tree. Finally, both voltage- and current-clamp data were used to constrain computer models of a motoneuron. The resultant simulations impose two conditions on the spatial distribution of CaV channels in motoneuron dendrites: one of asymmetry relative to the soma and another of spatial separation between clusters of CaV channels. We propose that this compartmentalization would provide motoneurons with the ability to process multiple sources of input in parallel and integrate this processed information to produce appropriate trains of action potentials for the intended motor behavior.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Action Potentials / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Animals, Newborn
  • Calcium Channels / physiology*
  • Dendrites / physiology*
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred BALB C
  • Motor Neurons / physiology*
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley


  • Calcium Channels