SK channel inhibition mediates the initiation and amplitude modulation of synchronized burst firing in the spinal cord

J Neurophysiol. 2017 Jul 1;118(1):161-175. doi: 10.1152/jn.00929.2016. Epub 2017 Mar 29.


Burst firing in motoneurons represents the basis for generating meaningful movements. Neuromodulators and inhibitory receptor blocker cocktails have been used for years to induce burst firing in vitro; however, the ionic mechanisms in the motoneuron membrane that contribute to burst initiation and amplitude modulation are not fully understood. Small conductance Ca2+-activated potassium (SK) channels regulate excitatory inputs and firing output of motoneurons and interneurons and therefore, are a candidate for mediating bursting behavior. The present study examines the role of SK channels in the generation of synchronized bursting using an in vitro spinal cord preparation from adult mice. Our results show that SK channel inhibition is required for both initiation and amplitude modulation of burst firing. Specifically, administration of the synaptic inhibition blockers strychnine and picrotoxin amplified the spinal circuit excitatory drive but not enough to evoke bursting. However, when SK channels were inhibited using various approaches, the excitatory drive was further amplified, and synchronized bursting was always evoked. Furthermore, graded SK channel inhibition modulated the amplitude of the burst in a dose-dependent manner, which was reversed using SK channel activators. Importantly, modulation of neuronal excitability using multiple approaches failed to mimic the effects of SK modulators, suggesting a specific role for SK channel inhibition in generating bursting. Both NMDA (N-methyl-d-aspartate) and AMPA (α-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methylisoxazole-4-propionate) receptors were found to drive the synchronized bursts. The blocking of gap junctions did not disturb the burst synchrony. These results demonstrate a novel mechanistic role for SK channels in initiating and modulating burst firing of spinal motoneurons.NEW & NOTEWORTHY This study demonstrates that cholinergic inhibition or direct blockade of small conductance Ca2+-activated potassium (SK) channels facilitates burst firing in spinal motoneurons. The data provide a novel mechanistic explanation for synchronized bursting initiation and amplitude modulation through SK channel inhibition. Evidence also shows that synchronized bursting is driven by NMDA (N-methyl-d-aspartate) and AMPA (α-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methylisoxazole-4-propionate) receptors and that gap junctions do not mediate motoneuron synchronization in this behavior.

Keywords: SK channels; motor output; spinal motoneurons; synchronized bursting.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Action Potentials*
  • Animals
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Motor Neurons / drug effects
  • Motor Neurons / physiology*
  • Potassium Channel Blockers / pharmacology
  • Receptors, AMPA / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Receptors, N-Methyl-D-Aspartate / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Small-Conductance Calcium-Activated Potassium Channels / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Small-Conductance Calcium-Activated Potassium Channels / metabolism*
  • Spinal Cord / cytology
  • Spinal Cord / physiology*


  • Potassium Channel Blockers
  • Receptors, AMPA
  • Receptors, N-Methyl-D-Aspartate
  • Small-Conductance Calcium-Activated Potassium Channels