Regulation of firing frequency in a computational model of a midbrain dopaminergic neuron

J Comput Neurosci. 2010 Jun;28(3):389-403. doi: 10.1007/s10827-010-0222-y. Epub 2010 Mar 10.


Dopaminergic (DA) neurons of the mammalian midbrain exhibit unusually low firing frequencies in vitro. Furthermore, injection of depolarizing current induces depolarization block before high frequencies are achieved. The maximum steady and transient rates are about 10 and 20 Hz, respectively, despite the ability of these neurons to generate bursts at higher frequencies in vivo. We use a three-compartment model calibrated to reproduce DA neuron responses to several pharmacological manipulations to uncover mechanisms of frequency limitation. The model exhibits a slow oscillatory potential (SOP) dependent on the interplay between the L-type Ca(2+) current and the small conductance K(+) (SK) current that is unmasked by fast Na(+) current block. Contrary to previous theoretical work, the SOP does not pace the steady spiking frequency in our model. The main currents that determine the spontaneous firing frequency are the subthreshold L-type Ca(2+) and the A-type K(+) currents. The model identifies the channel densities for the fast Na(+) and the delayed rectifier K(+) currents as critical parameters limiting the maximal steady frequency evoked by a depolarizing pulse. We hypothesize that the low maximal steady frequencies result from a low safety factor for action potential generation. In the model, the rate of Ca(2+) accumulation in the distal dendrites controls the transient initial frequency in response to a depolarizing pulse. Similar results are obtained when the same model parameters are used in a multi-compartmental model with a realistic reconstructed morphology, indicating that the salient contributions of the dendritic architecture have been captured by the simpler model.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Action Potentials / physiology
  • Animals
  • Biological Clocks / physiology
  • Calcium Channels / physiology
  • Computer Simulation*
  • Dopamine / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Ion Channel Gating / physiology
  • Models, Neurological*
  • Neurons / cytology
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Potassium Channels / physiology
  • Substantia Nigra / cytology
  • Substantia Nigra / physiology*
  • Ventral Tegmental Area / cytology
  • Ventral Tegmental Area / physiology*


  • Calcium Channels
  • Potassium Channels
  • Dopamine