Basal tree complexity shapes functional pathways in the prefrontal cortex

J Neurophysiol. 2017 Oct 1;118(4):1970-1983. doi: 10.1152/jn.00099.2017. Epub 2017 Jul 12.


While the morphology of basal dendritic trees in cortical pyramidal neurons varies, the functional implications of this diversity are just starting to emerge. In layer 5 pyramidal neurons of the prefrontal cortex, for example, increased basal tree complexity determines the recruitment of these neurons into functional circuits. Here, we use a modeling approach to investigate whether and how the morphology of the basal tree mediates the functional output of neurons. We implemented 57 basal tree morphologies of layer 5 prefrontal pyramidal neurons of the rat and identified morphological types that were characterized by different response features, forming distinct functional types. These types were robust to a wide range of manipulations (distribution of active ionic mechanisms, NMDA conductance, somatic and apical tree morphology, or the number of activated synapses) and supported different temporal coding schemes at both the single neuron and the microcircuit level. We predict that the basal tree morphological diversity among neurons of the same class mediates their segregation into distinct functional pathways. Extension of our approach/findings to other cortical areas and/or layers or under pathological conditions may provide a generalized role of the basal trees for neuronal function.NEW & NOTEWORTHY Our results suggest that the segregation of neurons to different functional types based on their basal tree morphology is in large part independent of the distribution of active ionic mechanisms, NMDA conductance, somatic and apical tree morphology, and the number of activated synapses; different functional types support distinct temporal coding schemes. This can be exploited to create networks with diverse coding characteristics, thus contributing to the functional heterogeneity within the same layer and area.

Keywords: computational model; dendritic nonlinearities; temporal summation; types of neurons.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Dendrites / metabolism
  • Dendrites / physiology*
  • Models, Neurological*
  • N-Methylaspartate / metabolism
  • Prefrontal Cortex / cytology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology*
  • Pyramidal Cells / metabolism
  • Pyramidal Cells / physiology*
  • Rats
  • Synaptic Transmission


  • N-Methylaspartate