Spike-Related Electrophysiological Identification of Cultured Hippocampal Excitatory and Inhibitory Neurons

Mol Neurobiol. 2019 Sep;56(9):6276-6292. doi: 10.1007/s12035-019-1506-5. Epub 2019 Feb 12.


Cultured hippocampal neurons represent the most widely used experimental substrate for in vitro electrophysiological studies. Nevertheless, in most cases, the nature of neuron under study is not identified as excitatory or inhibitory, or even worse, recorded neurons are considered as excitatory because of the paucity of GABAergic interneurons. Thus, the definition of reliable criteria able to guarantee an unequivocal identification of excitatory and inhibitory cultured hippocampal neurons is an unmet need. To reach this goal, we compared the electrophysiological properties and the localization and size of the axon initial segment (AIS) of cultured hippocampal neurons, taking advantage from GAD67-GFP knock-in mice, which expressing green fluorescent protein (GFP) in gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)-containing cells, allowed to unambiguously determine the precise nature of the neuron under study. Our results demonstrate that the passive electrophysiological properties, the localization and size of the AIS, and the shape and frequency of the action potential (AP) are not reliable to unequivocally identify neurons as excitatory or inhibitory. The only parameter, related to the shape of the single AP, showing minimal overlap between the sample-point distributions of the two neuronal subpopulations, was the AP half-width. However, the estimation of the AP failure ratio evoked by a short train of high-current steps applied at increasing frequency (40-140 Hz) resulted to be indisputably the safer and faster way to identify the excitatory or inhibitory nature of an unknown neuron. Our findings provide a precise framework for further electrophysiological investigations of in vitro hippocampal neurons.

Keywords: Action potential; Axonal initial segment; Excitatory neurons; Firing frequency; Half-width; Inhibitory neurons.

MeSH terms

  • Action Potentials / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Axons / metabolism
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Female
  • Glutamate Decarboxylase / metabolism
  • Green Fluorescent Proteins / metabolism
  • Hippocampus / cytology*
  • Kinetics
  • Male
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Neural Inhibition / physiology*
  • Neurons / physiology*


  • Green Fluorescent Proteins
  • Glutamate Decarboxylase