The unipolar brush cell: a remarkable neuron finally receiving deserved attention

Brain Res Rev. 2011 Jan 7;66(1-2):220-45. doi: 10.1016/j.brainresrev.2010.10.001. Epub 2010 Nov 5.


Unipolar brush cells (UBC) are small, glutamatergic neurons residing in the granular layer of the cerebellar cortex and the granule cell domain of the cochlear nuclear complex. Recent studies indicate that this neuronal class consists of three or more subsets characterized by distinct chemical phenotypes, as well as by intrinsic properties that may shape their synaptic responses and firing patterns. Yet, all UBCs have a unique morphology, as both the dendritic brush and the large endings of the axonal branches participate in the formation of glomeruli. Although UBCs and granule cells may share the same excitatory and inhibitory inputs, the two cell types are distinctively differentiated. Typically, whereas the granule cell has 4-5 dendrites that are innervated by different mossy fibers, and an axon that divides only once to form parallel fibers after ascending to the molecular layer, the UBC has but one short dendrite whose brush engages in synaptic contact with a single mossy fiber terminal, and an axon that branches locally in the granular layer; branches of UBC axons form a non-canonical, cortex-intrinsic category of mossy fibers synapsing with granule cells and other UBCs. This is thought to generate a feed-forward amplification of single mossy fiber afferent signals that would reach the overlying Purkinje cells via ascending granule cell axons and their parallel fibers. In sharp contrast to other classes of cerebellar neurons, UBCs are not distributed homogeneously across cerebellar lobules, and subsets of UBCs also show different, albeit overlapping, distributions. UBCs are conspicuously rare in the expansive lateral cerebellar areas targeted by the cortico-ponto-cerebellar pathway, while they are a constant component of the vermis and the flocculonodular lobe. The presence of UBCs in cerebellar regions involved in the sensorimotor processes that regulate body, head and eye position, as well as in regions of the cochlear nucleus that process sensorimotor information suggests a key role in these critical functions; it also invites further efforts to clarify the cellular biology of the UBCs and their specific functions in the neuronal microcircuits in which they are embedded. High density of UBCs in specific regions of the cerebellar cortex is a feature largely conserved across mammals and suggests an involvement of these neurons in fundamental aspects of the input/output organization as well as in clinical manifestation of focal cerebellar disease.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cerebellar Cortex / cytology*
  • Cerebellar Cortex / physiology
  • Humans
  • Nerve Net / cytology*
  • Nerve Net / physiology
  • Neural Pathways / cytology*
  • Neural Pathways / physiology
  • Neurons / cytology*
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Synapses / physiology
  • Synapses / ultrastructure*