Spike and burst coding in thalamocortical relay cells

PLoS Comput Biol. 2018 Feb 12;14(2):e1005960. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1005960. eCollection 2018 Feb.


Mammalian thalamocortical relay (TCR) neurons switch their firing activity between a tonic spiking and a bursting regime. In a combined experimental and computational study, we investigated the features in the input signal that single spikes and bursts in the output spike train represent and how this code is influenced by the membrane voltage state of the neuron. Identical frozen Gaussian noise current traces were injected into TCR neurons in rat brain slices as well as in a validated three-compartment TCR model cell. The resulting membrane voltage traces and spike trains were analyzed by calculating the coherence and impedance. Reverse correlation techniques gave the Event-Triggered Average (ETA) and the Event-Triggered Covariance (ETC). This demonstrated that the feature selectivity started relatively long before the events (up to 300 ms) and showed a clear distinction between spikes (selective for fluctuations) and bursts (selective for integration). The model cell was fine-tuned to mimic the frozen noise initiated spike and burst responses to within experimental accuracy, especially for the mixed mode regimes. The information content carried by the various types of events in the signal as well as by the whole signal was calculated. Bursts phase-lock to and transfer information at lower frequencies than single spikes. On depolarization the neuron transits smoothly from the predominantly bursting regime to a spiking regime, in which it is more sensitive to high-frequency fluctuations. The model was then used to elucidate properties that could not be assessed experimentally, in particular the role of two important subthreshold voltage-dependent currents: the low threshold activated calcium current (IT) and the cyclic nucleotide modulated h current (Ih). The ETAs of those currents and their underlying activation/inactivation states not only explained the state dependence of the firing regime but also the long-lasting concerted dynamic action of the two currents. Finally, the model was used to investigate the more realistic "high-conductance state", where fluctuations are caused by (synaptic) conductance changes instead of current injection. Under "standard" conditions bursts are difficult to initiate, given the high degree of inactivation of the T-type calcium current. Strong and/or precisely timed inhibitory currents were able to remove this inactivation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Action Potentials / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Brain / metabolism
  • Calcium / metabolism
  • Calcium Channels / metabolism
  • Cell Count
  • Electrophysiology
  • Fourier Analysis
  • Geniculate Bodies / physiology
  • Membrane Potentials / physiology
  • Models, Neurological
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Normal Distribution
  • Patch-Clamp Techniques*
  • Poisson Distribution
  • Probability
  • Rats
  • Rats, Wistar
  • Signal Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Thalamus / physiology*


  • Calcium Channels
  • Calcium

Grant support

This work was partically funded by a Radboud Christine Mohrmann Fellowship received by FZ. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.