Spikelets are small spike-like membrane depolarizations measured at the soma whose origin in pyramidal neurons is still unresolved. We investigated the mechanism of spikelet generation using detailed models of pyramidal neurons. We simulated extracellular waveforms associated with action potentials and spikelets and compared these with experimental data obtained by Chorev and Brecht ( J Neurophysiol 108: 1584-1593, 2012) from hippocampal pyramidal neurons in vivo. We considered spikelets originating in the axon of a single cell as well as spikelets generated in two cells coupled with gap junctions. We found that in both cases the experimental data can be explained by an axonal origin of spikelets: in the single-cell case, action potentials are generated in the axon but fail to activate the soma. Such spikelets can be evoked by dendritic input. Alternatively, spikelets resulting from axoaxonal gap junction coupling with a large (greater than several hundred μm) distance between the somata of the coupled cells are also consistent with the data. Our results demonstrate that a cell firing a somatic spikelet generates a detectable extracellular potential that is different from the action potential-correlated extracellular waveform generated by the same cell and recorded at the same location. This, together with the absence of a refractory period between action potentials and spikelets, implies that spikelets and action potentials generated in one cell may easily get misclassified in extracellular recordings as two different cells, albeit they both constitute the output of a single pyramidal neuron. NEW & NOTEWORTHY We addressed the origin of spikelets, using compartmental models of pyramidal neurons. Comparing our simulation results with published extracellular spikelet recordings revealed an axonal origin of spikelets. Our results imply that action potential- and spikelet-associated extracellular waveforms may easily get misclassified as two different cells, albeit they both constitute the output of a single pyramidal cell.
Keywords: action potential initiation; axon initial segment; computational model; extracellular potential; spikelet.