Changes in the extracellular ionic concentrations occur as a natural consequence of firing activity in large populations of neurons. The extent to which these changes alter the properties of individual neurons and the operation of neuronal networks remains unknown. Here, we show that the locomotor-like activity in the isolated neonatal rodent spinal cord reduces the extracellular calcium ([Ca(2+)]o) to 0.9 mM and increases the extracellular potassium ([K(+)]o) to 6 mM. Such changes in [Ca(2+)]o and [K(+)]o trigger pacemaker activities in interneurons considered to be part of the locomotor network. Experimental data and a modeling study show that the emergence of pacemaker properties critically involves a [Ca(2+)]o-dependent activation of the persistent sodium current (INaP). These results support a concept for locomotor rhythm generation in which INaP-dependent pacemaker properties in spinal interneurons are switched on and tuned by activity-dependent changes in [Ca(2+)]o and [K(+)]o.
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