Cortical inhibitory interneurons (INs) are subdivided into a variety of morphologically and functionally specialized cell types. How the respective specific properties translate into mechanisms that regulate sensory-evoked responses of pyramidal neurons (PNs) remains unknown. Here, we investigated how INs located in cortical layer 1 (L1) of rat barrel cortex affect whisker-evoked responses of L2 PNs. To do so we combined in vivo electrophysiology and morphological reconstructions with computational modeling. We show that whisker-evoked membrane depolarization in L2 PNs arises from highly specialized spatiotemporal synaptic input patterns. Temporally L1 INs and L2-5 PNs provide near synchronous synaptic input. Spatially synaptic contacts from L1 INs target distal apical tuft dendrites, whereas PNs primarily innervate basal and proximal apical dendrites. Simulations of such constrained synaptic input patterns predicted that inactivation of L1 INs increases trial-to-trial variability of whisker-evoked responses in L2 PNs. The in silico predictions were confirmed in vivo by L1-specific pharmacological manipulations. We present a mechanism-consistent with the theory of distal dendritic shunting-that can regulate the robustness of sensory-evoked responses in PNs without affecting response amplitude or latency.
Keywords: NMDAR; barrel cortex; cortical column; layer 1; shunting.