Counting Vesicular Release Events Reveals Binomial Release Statistics at Single Glutamatergic Synapses

J Neurosci. 2016 Apr 6;36(14):4010-25. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4352-15.2016.


Many central glutamatergic synapses contain a single presynaptic active zone and a single postsynaptic density. However, the basic functional properties of such "simple synapses" remain unclear. One important step toward understanding simple synapse function is to analyze the number of synaptic vesicles released in such structures per action potential, but this goal has remained elusive until now. Here, we describe procedures that allow reliable vesicular release counting at simple synapses between parallel fibers and molecular layer interneurons of rat cerebellar slices. Our analysis involves local extracellular stimulation of single parallel fibers and deconvolution of resulting EPSCs using quantal signals as template. We observed a reduction of quantal amplitudes (amplitude occlusion) in pairs of consecutive EPSCs due to receptor saturation. This effect is larger (62%) than previously reported and primarily reflects receptor activation rather than desensitization. In addition to activation-driven amplitude occlusion, each EPSC reduces amplitudes of subsequent events by an estimated 3% due to cumulative desensitization. Vesicular release counts at simple synapses follow binomial statistics with a maximum that varies from 2 to 10 among experiments. This maximum presumably reflects the number of docking sites at a given synapse. These results show striking similarities, as well as significant quantitative differences, with respect to previous results at simple GABAergic synapses.

Significance statement: It is generally accepted that the output signal of individual central synapses saturates at high release probability, but it remains unclear whether the source of saturation is presynaptic, postsynaptic, or both presynaptic and postsynaptic. To clarify this and other issues concerning the function of synapses, we have developed new recording and analysis methods at single central glutamatergic synapses. We find that individual release events engage a high proportion of postsynaptic receptors (62%), revealing a larger component of postsynaptic saturation than anticipated. Conversely, we also find that the number of released synaptic vesicles is limited at each active zone. Altogether, our results argue for both presynaptic and postsynaptic contributions to signal saturation at single glutamatergic synapses.

Keywords: AMPA receptor; cerebellum; glutamate; synaptic release; synaptic vesicles.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms
  • Animals
  • Cerebellum / physiology
  • Electric Stimulation
  • Excitatory Postsynaptic Potentials / physiology
  • Female
  • Glutamic Acid / physiology*
  • Interneurons / physiology
  • Male
  • Models, Neurological
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Receptors, AMPA / physiology*
  • Synapses / metabolism*
  • Synapses / physiology*
  • Synaptic Transmission / physiology
  • Synaptic Vesicles / physiology


  • Receptors, AMPA
  • Glutamic Acid