Distribution of four types of synapse on physiologically identified relay neurons in the ventral posterior thalamic nucleus of the cat

J Comp Neurol. 1995 Jan 30;352(1):69-91. doi: 10.1002/cne.903520106.


This study was aimed at providing quantitative data on the thalamic circuitry that underlies the central processing of somatosensory information. Four physiologically identified thalamocortical relay neurons in the ventral posterior lateral nucleus (VPL) of the cat thalamus were injected with horseradish peroxidase and subjected to quantitative electron microscopy after pre- or postembedding immunostaining for gamma-aminobutyric acid to reveal synaptic terminals of thalamic inhibitory neurons. The four cells all had rapidly adapting responses to light mechanical stimuli applied to their receptive fields, which were situated on hairy or glabrous skin or related to a joint. Their dendritic architecture was typical of cells previously described as type I relay cells in VPL, and they lacked dendritic appendages. Terminals ending in synapses on the injected cells were categorized as RL (ascending afferent), F (inhibitory), PSD (presynaptic dendrite), and RS (mainly corticothalamic) types and were quantified in reconstructions of serial thin sections. RL and F terminals formed the majority of the synapses on proximal dendrites (approximately 50% each). The number of synapses formed by RL terminals declined on intermediate dendrites, but those formed by F terminals remained relatively high, declining to moderate levels (20-30%) on distal dendrites. RS terminals formed moderate numbers of the synapses on intermediate dendrites and the majority (> 60%) of the synapses on distal dendrites. Synapses formed by PSDs were concentrated on intermediate dendrites and were few in number (approximately 6%). They formed synaptic triads with F terminals and rarely with RL terminals. On somata, only a few synapses were found, all made by F terminals. The total number of synapses per cell was calculated to be 5,584-8,797, with a density of 0.6-0.9 per micrometer of dendritic length. Of the total, RL terminals constituted approximately 15%, F terminals approximately 35%, PSD terminals approximately 5%, and RS terminals approximately 50%. These results provide the first quantitative assessment of the synaptic architecture of thalamic somatic sensory relay neurons and show the basic organizational pattern exhibited by representatives of the physiological type of relay neurons most commonly encountered in the VPL nucleus.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cats
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Immunohistochemistry
  • Microscopy, Electron
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Neurons / ultrastructure*
  • Somatosensory Cortex / ultrastructure
  • Synapses / physiology
  • Synapses / ultrastructure*
  • Thalamus / physiology
  • Thalamus / ultrastructure*
  • gamma-Aminobutyric Acid


  • gamma-Aminobutyric Acid