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volume 5 no 6 june 2002

© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

The timing of neuronal activity is
proposed to be important for Of apes and men . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 501
binding features of a complex
sensory stimulus. Christensen and
colleagues recorded news and views
simultaneously from pairs of pro-
jection neurons in the Quick-change artist: from excitatory to inhibitory synapse
pheromone-receptive in minutes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 503
macroglomerular complex of Story C. Landis
male sphinx moths and found SEE ARTICLE, PAGE 539
more synchrony of responses to a
specific odor component among Putting odor maps in sync . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 505
neurons that innervated the same Wei R. Chen and Gordon M. Shepherd
rather than separate glomeruli. SEE ARTICLE, PAGE 557
This synchrony was enhanced by
inhibitory influences from neigh- Posterior parietal cortex: not just where, but how . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 506
boring glomeruli responding to a
Joshua I. Gold and Mark E. Mazurek
different, but chemically similar
pheromone. Photograph courtesy
of Photo Research. See pages 505 Illusions, perception and Bayes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 508
and 557.
Wilson S. Geisler and Daniel Kersten

Wnt signals lead cells down the caudal path . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 510

Brian Fiske

brief communications
Nax channel involved in CNS sodium-level sensing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 511
T Y Hiyama, E Watanabe, K Ono, K Inenaga, M M Tamkun, S Yoshida
and M Noda
Acute versus chronic NMDA receptor blockade and synaptic
Getting to the brain AMPA receptor delivery . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 513
through the nose. J J Zhu and R Malinow
Page 514
Sniffing neuropeptides: a transnasal approach to
the human brain . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 514
J Born, T Lange, W Kern, G P McGregor, U Bicke and H L Fehm

Nature Neuroscience (ISSN 1097-6256) is published monthly by Nature America Inc., 345 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10010-1707. Editorial Office: 345 Park Avenue South, New York, NY
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nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002 i


Thalamcortical optimization of tactile processing according to
behavioral state . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 517
M A L Nicolelis and E E Fanselow

© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

Progressive induction of caudal neural character by

graded Wnt signaling . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 525
U Nordström, T M Jessell and T Edlund

Ion channel properties underlying axonal action potential initiation

in pyramidal neurons . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 533
A proposed model of C M Colbert and E Pan
thalamocortical processing.
Page 517.
A rapid switch in sympathetic neurotransmitter release properties
mediated by the p75 receptor. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 539
B Yang, J D Slonimsky and S J Birren

Ethanol elicits and potentiates nociceptor responses via

the vanilloid receptor-1 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 546
M Trevisani, D Smart, M J Gunthorpe, M Tognetto, M Barbieri, B Campi,
S Amadesi, J Gray, J C Jerman, S J Brough, D Owen, G D Smith, A D Randall,
S Harrison, A Bianchi, J B Davis and P Geppetti
A computational role for slow conductances: single-neuron models
Computing sound duration that measure duration . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 552
with a slow conductance. S L Hooper, E Buchman and K H Hobbs
Page 552.
Local inhibition modulates odor-evoked synchronization of
glomerulus-specific output neurons . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 557
H Lei, T A Christensen and J G Hildebrand

Decreasing hypothalamic insulin receptors causes hyperphagia

and insulin resistance in rats . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 566
S Obici, Z Feng, G Karkanias, D G Baskin and L Rossetti
Calcium–calmodulin-dependent protein kinase IV is required
for fear memory . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 573
F Wei, C Qiu, Liauw, D A Robinson, N Ho, T Chatila and M Zhuo
Non-spatial, motor-specific activation in posterior parietal cortex . . . . . . . . . . . 580
J L Calton, A R Dickinson and L H Snyder
fear memory.
Page 573. Neural activity in early visual cortex reflects behavioral experience
and higher-order perceptual saliency . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 589
T S Lee, C F Yang, R D Romero and D Mumford
Motion illusions as optimal percepts . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 598
Y Weiss, E P Simoncelli and E H Adelson

Stable perception of visually ambiguous patterns . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 605

D A Leopold, M Wilke, A Maier and N K Logothetis

classified advertising . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . see back pages

Stabilizing perception
of ambiguous patterns.
Page 605.

nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002 ii

© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

Of apes and men

How do our brains differ from those of our closest living relatives, during development. This limitation is unfortunate because early
the great apes (bonobos, chimpanzees, orangutans and gorillas)? development is when gene activity can profoundly influence over-
Despite our persistant curiosity about the issue, even very basic all brain structure, and differences in early gene activity probably
questions remain unresolved, such as whether differences in cog- drive evolutionary changes. However, such experiments are possi-
nitive abilities emerged from the addition of new types of neurons ble in monkeys, and they would help to focus more traditional
and cortical areas or enlargement of otherwise similar components. comparative studies. For example, using slice cultures of embry-
In a new study, Svante Pääbo and colleagues1 offer a fresh onic human, macaque and mouse brains, Letinic and Rakic2 recent-
approach to the problem by comparing gene and protein expression ly reported a migratory pathway from the telencephalon to the
on a large scale between ape and human brains. The study is diencephalon that exists in humans but is not apparent in macaque
provocative and raises many new questions. Nevertheless, given or rodent brain; this pathway seems to contribute to the expansion
the sheer complexity of neural structures, linking these molecules of particular brain regions in humans. (Because great apes were
to changes in circuits and behavior may prove very difficult. More not examined, it is not known whether this pathway is unique to
modest goals, however, seem achievable. humans.) The authors conclude that small changes in migratory
The authors removed gray matter from the left prefrontal lobe guidance cues during evolution could lead to the expansion of
of adult humans, chimpanzees, orangutans and macaques (which human-specific brain structures. Identifying the molecular basis
had died of natural causes), and then used oligonucleotide and of such differences would be an important advance.
cDNA arrays to compare gene expression in the brain, liver and A major challenge will be to understand what underlies the dif-
blood. Although non-human primate gene chips are not available, ferences in gene expression profiles. Differences in promotor
the authors were able to use probes based on human sequences, regions of genes and other cis-acting regulatory regions will sure-
because primate genomic DNA sequences are highly conserved ly contribute, and it may be possible to identify these. However,
(over 98% identity for coding regions). changes in RNA levels may result from other factors, such as trans-
By summing differences in mRNA levels over all genes for each activating proteins. A detailed comparison of the human and chim-
tissue, the authors report that for blood leukocytes and liver, the panzee genome sequences will be of great use here—and although
human expression pattern was more similar to that of chimpanzees progress on chimpanzee sequencing has so far been limited to
than to that of macaques. This result was expected—humans are chromosome 21, it now seems likely that substantial resources will
more closely related to chimpanzees than chimpanzees are to be committed to this project.
macaques. However, in brain tissue, the chimpanzee and macaque Most importantly, conclusions based on informatics
expression patterns were more similar to each other than to the approaches will need to be placed into a broader biological con-
human pattern. The authors conclude that human evolution text. Even within a small area of the brain, the interpretation of
included large and rapid changes in gene expression levels in the averaged mRNA abundance levels can be complicated by large
brain compared with other organs. differences in the expression of given transcripts between differ-
Human and chimpanzee brains differ substantially, yet their ent cell types. Therefore, several groups are using array tech-
DNA sequences do not. Thus the general conclusion that large nologies together with techniques that offer high spatial
changes in gene expression might account for brain differences is resolution. For example, David Anderson and colleagues3 com-
not necessarily surprising. The goal now is to use this information bined microarray experiments with in situ hybridization to iden-
about expression differences to understand what changes at the tify genes that respected anatomically defined subdivisions of the
level of DNA led to a brain with different functional properties. amygdala. Such gene expression domains also defined subdivi-
First, it will be necessary to verify that the reported gene expres- sions that were not readily apparent with anatomical staining
sion patterns are stable and reproducible. This is important techniques. Other groups are using microarrays and in situ
because microarray technology is still rapidly evolving—as are the hybridization with similar goals of identifying transcripts
bioinformatics tools that are necessary to interpret the results. For expressed preferentially in various neocortical areas. This ‘mol-
example, the oligonucleotide chip technique indicated considerable ecular anatomical’ information could be used in comparative
within-species variation: one human brain sample differed as studies to understand the relationship between human and great
much from the other human samples as it did from chimpanzee ape cortical areas, and perhaps to identify regions that have
brain. Furthermore, it will be critical to determine whether the evolved very recently in humans.
observed changes reflect ‘recent’ (and less informative) transcrip-
tion events associated with learning and memory, for example, or 1. Enard, W. et al. Science 296, 340–343 (2002).
more profound interspecies differences. 2. Letinic, K. & Rakic, P. Nat. Neurosci. 4, 931–936 (2001).
Given the serious ethical issues involved in experimenting on 3. Zirlinger, M., Kreiman, G. & Anderson, D. J. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 98,
great apes, similar comparative experiments are unlikely to be done 5270–5275 (2001).

nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002 501

news and views

Quick-change artist: from excitatory

to inhibitory synapse in minutes
Story C. Landis
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

Cultured sympathetic neurons contain an excitatory transmitter, norepinephrine, and one that
is inhibitory, acetylcholine. A new paper shows that BDNF increases the ratio of acetylcholine to
norepinephrine release, reversing the effect of neural stimulation from excitation to inhibition.

Many, if not most, neurons synthesize, lishment of functional connections dition4. Several lines of evidence suggest
store and release multiple neuroactive between a single sympathetic neuron and that the effect is presynaptic, resulting
substances. In most cases, neurons use a small clusters of cardiac myocytes4. These from increased norepinephrine release.
small-molecule neurotransmitter and connections can be readily monitored by Not surprisingly, the effect is mediated
one or more neuropeptides. These by trkA, the tyrosine kinase recep-
are stored in synaptic and large tor, which transduces other effects
dense-core vesicles, respectively, of NGF on sympathetic neurons,
and release from these two pools neuron including survival and growth.
can be differentially regulated. In In the present studies, Yang and
a growing number of instances, colleagues examined the effects of
however, the same neuron has myocytes treating the sympathetic neuron
been observed to synthesize two and myocyte cocultures with
small-molecule transmitters, both BDNF3. In striking contrast to the
of which are presumably stored in effects of NGF, after treatment of
synaptic vesicles. The first exam- the cultures for 15 minutes or sev-
ple was uncovered in analyses of eral days with BDNF, neuron stim-
neonatal sympathetic neurons ulation significantly decreases the
developing in microcultures with axon varicosity
rate at which the myocytes con-
cardiac myocytes. Electrophysio- Amy Center
tract. The inhibitory effects of neu-
logical and ultrastructural studies Fig. 1. In the culture system used by Yang and colleagues, indi- ron stimulation observed after
revealed that under these condi- vidual sympathetic neurons form an extensive network of BDNF treatment are blocked by
tions, individual neurons produce processes in association with small clusters of myocytes. The the muscarinic antagonist atropine,
both norepinephrine and acetyl- myocytes contract or beat spontaneously. When the neuron is indicating that they are mediated
choline1,2. The two transmitters stimulated with a depolarizing current, neurotransmitter is by acetylcholine. BDNF does not
have opposing actions on heart released from axonal varicosities. Under control conditions, affect the responses of the heart
myocytes: norepinephrine is exci- neuron stimulation leads to an increase in the myocyte beat rate myocytes to exogenous transmitter
tatory, depolarizing the myocytes due to the release of norepinephrine. When the cultures are agonists, consistent with a presy-
treated with BDNF, neuron stimulation leads to a decrease in
and speeding their beat, whereas naptic mechanism. The rapid
the beat rate. The simplest explanation of these results is that
acetylcholine is inihibitory, hyper- the axonal varicosities shown at higher magnification in the
induction of an inhibitory effect by
polarizing the myocytes and slow- inset contain two populations of synaptic vesicles, one shown in BDNF and recovery of excitation
ing their beat. In this issue, Yang blue that contains norepinephrine and a second shown in purple after its withdrawal make it unlike-
and colleagues describe the very that contains acetylcholine. Under control conditions, norepi- ly that the neurotrophin is affect-
surprising discovery that the neu- nephrine-containing vesicles are predominantly released, ing the relative synthesis of the two
rotrophin brain-derived neu- whereas BDNF suppresses norepinephrine release and transmitters. Instead BDNF seems
rotrophic factor (BDNF) alters enhances acetylcholine release. to increase the release of acetyl-
the relative release of the two choline preferentially. Thus, two
transmitters, favoring the secre- members of the neurotrophin fam-
tion of acetylcholine over norepineph- examining the rate at which the myocytes ily, NGF and BDNF, differentially affect
rine and transforming what was an contract. Under control conditions, they release of the two transmitters contained
excitatory synapse into an inhibitory one beat spontaneously. Stimulation of a in these bifunctional neurons.
within minutes3. nearby sympathetic neuron doubles the Neurotrophins bind and activate the
The culture system used by Yang and beat rate. This effect is blocked by the low-affinity neurotrophin receptor
coworkers (Fig. 1) encourages the estab- adrenergic antagonist, propranolol, indi- p75 NTR in addition to tyrosine kinase
cating that it is mediated by norepi- receptors5,6. Yang and colleagues provide
The author is at the National Institute of
nephrine. Treating cocultures with compelling evidence that the effects of
Neurological Disorders and Stroke, National increased levels of the neurotrophin BDNF on transmitter release by sympa-
Institutes of Health, Bldg. 36, Rm. 5A05, nerve growth factor (NGF) for 15 min- thetic neurons are mediated by p75NTR
36 Convent Dr., Bethesda, Maryland utes enhances the excitatory effects of and not by a tyrosine kinase receptor3.
20892-4150, USA. neuron stimulation so that the rate is First, neonatal sympathetic neurons do
e-mail: fourfold greater than in the control con- not express significant levels of trkB or

nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002 503

news and views

trkC, the tyrosine kinase receptors acti- function sympathetic neurons contain properties and acquisition of cholinergic
vated by BDNF. Consistent with their two populations of small synaptic vesi- properties occurs during the first two
absence, the tyrosine kinase inhibitor cles, one noradrenergic and one cholin- postnatal weeks in the sympathetic neu-
K252a has no effect on the induction of ergic, and that signaling initiated by NGF rons that innervate sweat glands and
inhibition by BDNF. Second and most and BDNF through trkA and p75 NTR, periosteum in vivo13,14. It is possible that
compelling, sympathetic neurons isolat- respectively, increases the probability of BDNF and/or NGF acutely influence
ed from mice that lack the neu- release from one pool or the other. Con- which transmitter is released from these
rotrophin-binding, long form of p75NTR sistent with this notion, neurons releas- neurons when they are bifunctional.
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

do not respond to BDNF. In addition, ing norepinephrine and acetylcholine Of significantly more interest is the
stimulation of neurons containing contain both small granular vesicles that possibility raised by the authors that the
increased levels of p75 leads to a contain norepinephrine and small clear release of colocalized transmitters in
decreased myocyte beat rate in the pres- vesicles that are believed to contain central neurons could be independent-
ence of BDNF. Somewhat surprisingly, acetylcholine2,8. Whereas sympathetic ly and rapidly modulated. They provide
this effect was also observed when BDNF neurons form morphologically special- several examples of neurons that con-
was absent and when p75NTR lacking the ized synapses with each other in these tain two classical or small-molecule
ligand binding domain was overex- cultures, the connections that they make transmitters. These include glutamate
pressed. Thus, when expressed at high with myocytes lack well defined pre- and and GABA in hippocampal granule cells,
enough levels, p75NTR seems to be able postsynaptic active zones2,8. In contrast dopamine and glutamate in substantia
to signal in a ligand-independent man- to the wealth of knowledge about the nigra neurons, and GABA and glycine
ner. Whereas the signaling pathways molecular architecture of presynaptic in spinal interneurons3. An additional
downstream of the trk receptors are rel- active zones and regulation of transmitter example that lends itself to the kinds of
atively well understood, the mechanisms release, relatively little is known about analyses that Yang and colleagues have
by which binding of neurotrophins to transmitter release from unspecialized performed in the present studies is the
p75NTR activates downstream signaling axonal varicosities. It would therefore be release of glutamate at autapses formed
are incompletely delineated5,6. One rel- of interest to know whether cholinergic by individual serotonergic raphe neu-
atively well established pathway involves transmission is enhanced by BDNF treat- rons grown in microcultures15. It is clear
the activation of sphingomyelinase and ment at neuron–neuron synapses as it is that the ability to alter the relative
the production of ceramide7. Yang and at neuron–myocyte junctions. Although release of the two transmitters would
colleagues found that stimulating neu- differential regulation of release from two provide a previously unanticipated
rons in cultures that had been treated populations of synaptic vesicles is the opportunity for the generation of synap-
with C2 ceramide to mimic sphin- likeliest explanation, there are alterna- tic plasticity. Although members of the
gomyelinase activation elicited a tives. The amount of transmitter con- neurotrophin family elicit these changes
decrease in beat frequency. These data tained within synaptic vesicles depends in the present case, there is no reason to
are consistent with the notion of sphin- on re-uptake of transmitter or its pre- believe that they are the only triggers.
gomyelinase as a primary mediator. cursor by plasma membrane trans-
They do not, however, rule out the pos- porters, synthesis of transmitter in the 1. Furshpan, E. J. et al. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA
73, 4225–4229 (1976).
sibility that some of the growing list of cytoplasm, vesicular transporters and
recently identified p75 NTR interacting degradation 9 . Any of these processes 2. Furshpan, E. J. et al. J. Neurosci. 6, 1061–1079
proteins also contribute5. could be influenced by neurotrophins,
3. Yang, B., Slonimsky, J. D. & Birren, S. Nat.
At first glance, the results described by resulting in changes in the amount of Neurosci. 5, 539–545 (2002).
Yang et al. 3 give the impression that norepinephrine or acetylcholine stored
4. Lockhart, S. T., Turrigiano, G. G. & Birren, S.
BNDF treatment eliminates norepineph- within vesicles and available for release. J. Neurosci. 17, 9573–9582 (1997).
rine release and initiates de novo acetyl- One of the most striking aspects of this 5. Bibel, M. & Barde, Y. A. Genes Dev. 14,
choline release, therefore giving rise to a study is the rapid switch between nora- 2919–2937 (2000).
complete switch in transmitter output. drenergic and cholinergic transmission 6. Kaplan, D. R. & Miller, F. D. Curr. Opin.
This may be an artifact of the myocyte elicited by BDNF treatment. Previous Neurobiol. 10, 381–391 (2000).
beating assay, which sums the adrenergic studies had established that the relative 7. Dobrowsky, R. T. et al. Science 265, 1596–1599
stimulation and cholinergic inhibition. balance between the synthesis and storage (1994).
Consistent with this interpretation, an of norepinephrine and acetylcholine is 8. Landis, S. C. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 73,
increase in beat frequency after neuron altered by treating the neurons with neu- 4220–4224 (1976).
stimulation in BDNF-treated cultures is ropoietic cytokines, leukemia inhibitory 9. Fon, E. A. & Edwards, R. H . Muscle Nerve 24,
581–601 (2001).
unmasked by atropine. Intracellular factor (LIF) or ciliary neurotrophic factor
recordings from the myocytes would (CNTF). LIF and CNTF decrease the 10. Fukada, K. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 82,
8795–8799 (1985).
resolve this issue because the cholinergic expression of noradrenergic properties
11. Patterson, P. H. & Nawa, H. Cell 72, 123–137
inhibition has a faster time course than and increase the expression of cholinergic (1993).
the adrenergic inhibition1,2. Finding that properties10–12. In contrast to the effect of 12. Saadat, S., Sendtner, M. & Rohrer, H. J. Cell
the effect is a modulation rather than a BDNF, the alterations in transmitter Biol. 108, 1807–1816 (1989).
switch would in no way diminish the metabolism induced by LIF and CNTF 13. Asmus, S. E., Parsons, S. & Landis, S. C.
interest in the finding but could shed light and the consequent change in functional J. Neurosci. 20, 1495–1504 (2000).
on the underlying mechanisms. output occur over the course of days and 14. Guidry, G. & Landis, S. C. Dev. Biol. 199,
As the authors posit, the most likely weeks. A developmental transmitter 175–184 (1998).
explanation for their results is that dual- switch involving the loss of noradrenergic 15. Johnson, M. D. Neuron 12, 433–442 (1994).

504 nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002

news and views

principal neurons, the investigators 3

Putting odor maps in sync record responses from pairs of output
neurons to test the question: do neuron
Wei R. Chen and Gordon M. Shepherd pairs show greater synchrony when con-
nected to the same glomerulus compared
Dual recordings of projection neurons in the moth antennal to different glomeruli? An advantage of
lobe suggest a key role for synchrony resulting from the insect for this kind of study lies in
interglomerular interactions in coding odor representations. stimulus control; puffs of different dura-
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

tions, concentrations and repetition rates

can be controlled precisely, simulating
Insects have antennae, and vertebrates have degrees (constituting its ‘molecular recep- the way a moth normally follows an odor
noses, making it seem that they have adopt- tive range5); conversely, a given odor has plume, which is to sense changes in the
ed different strategies for sensing odors in different affinities for different receptors. frequency of the intermittent odor
their environment. Despite this difference, Each glomerulus receives its input plumes emitted.
the sensory receptor neurons in both organs from a subpopulation of sensory recep- The results show that each odor com-
send their axons to converge in the brain in tor cells expressing one receptor type. ponent activates synchronous bursts of
small rounded regions called glomeruli. There are up to several hundred glomeruli action potentials in paired cells connected
These are dense collections of synaptic con- in an insect antennal lobe and several to the same glomerulus. Synchrony in
nections between sensory neuron axon ter- thousand in a vertebrate olfactory bulb. response to a single odor is much reduced
minals and the dendrites of the principal A given glomerulus thus reflects the mol- when the cells are connected to different
output neurons (Fig. 1). Glomeruli thus ecular receptive range of the receptor glomeruli. The similarity of the bursts
hold a key to understanding the neural basis expressed by the population of sensory extends to the timing of the individual
of the sense of smell. Glomeruli are also the neurons that projects to it. This makes the impulses, which is key, because it means
most distinct anatomical modules in the glomerulus one of the most specific func- that the synchronous impulses sum to
brain, and are therefore of interest to neu- tional modules in the nervous system. amplify the strengths of the individual
roscientists with regard to the general prin- Exposure to different odors activates responses. These results add to previous
ciples of functional module organization, different glomeruli to different extents,
such as cortical columns and barrels. producing the spatial patterns of activa- Odors
Until now, there have been two main tion of the glomerular population. This is C15 BAL

views about the functions of glomeruli. true for all the main types of odors: simple
One is that the stimulating molecules are monomolecular compounds, pheromones Antennae Receptor
encoded in the spatial pattern of activity and complex odor blends. As shown by neurons

in the glomerular population1. A second many different imaging methods, these

is that oscillatory temporal firing patterns spatial patterns form an odor map, an
of the output neurons are sufficient to ‘odor image’, of the information contained Antennal lobe
encode the odor stimuli2. In this issue, Lei in the stimulating molecules (summarized
et al.3 now report evidence for a third view, in ref. 6). The overlaps of molecular recep- CUM TOR

that synchronization of output neuron tive ranges of different receptors enable Glomeruli
activity at specific sites within the odor the system to cover the thousands of PN
map is crucial 4,5. This is an important potential types of molecules in odor space.
question not only for olfaction, but also By the same token, they add to the com-
for other systems where synchronous fir- plexity of the odor maps.
ing of cells is regarded as critical for such Lei et al. used a well tested organism, Mushroom bodies
Amy Center
properties as binding of distributed cell the sphynx moth, which has a pair of dis-
responses into coherent representations of tinct glomeruli, called cumulus and toroid, Fig. 1. The insect olfactory pathway. Two sub-
the stimuli. Understanding the significance that are activated selectively by compo- sets of receptor neurons in the antennae (red
of the new data requires an acquaintance nents of the female sex pheromone: the and blue) express different olfactory receptors
with the organization of a glomerulus. cumulus to component C15 and the toroid and respond preferentially to pheromone com-
Odor stimulation begins with the to component BAL (Fig. 1). Each of these ponents C15 and BAL, respectively. Each sub-
action of odor molecules on olfactory glomeruli has a small population of out- set sends its axons to its respective glomerulus,
cumulus (CUM) and toroid (TOR). Each
receptor proteins in the membranes of cilia put (principal) neurons in the antennal glomerulus has its subset of principal output
on the sensory receptor neurons. Each sen- lobe connected to it. The principal neu- neurons (PN), which project their axons to the
sory neuron expresses one of a hundred or rons send their dendrites to receive input mushroom bodies, where higher-level process-
so types of olfactory receptor proteins in from only a single glomerulus, and trans- ing takes place. Interneurons (INT) connect to
the insect and one of a thousand types in mit their responses through their axons to multiple glomeruli, to mediate inhibitory
the mammal. Various odor molecules will higher centers in the insect brain (the actions within and between glomeruli. Lei et al.3
activate a given receptor type to varying mushroom bodies). The relations between recorded from pairs of PNs and found that
principal neurons, their glomeruli, and each odor component activates synchronous
their projections to the mushroom bodies bursts of action potentials in paired cells con-
The authors are in the Department of nected to the same glomerulus. Furthermore,
Neurobiology, Yale University School of have been demonstrated particularly clear-
lateral inhibition between glomeruli mediated
Medicine, 333 Cedar Street, New Haven, ly by enhancer trap techniques7,8. by interneurons increases synchronization in
Connecticut 06510, USA. Using intracellular recordings, com- response to simultaneous stimulation by both
e-mail: bined with staining of the recorded odor components.

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evidence in olfactory bulb slices that a blend of both components is used as the idea, all of the odor processing in the insect
glomerulus can function to synchronize stimulus, the initial mutual inhibition antennal lobe is carried out by glomeruli.
burst responses9,10, and show that syn- between principal neurons occurs simul- In contrast, the vertebrate olfactory
chronization occurs in the insect in taneously, enhancing their subsequent syn- bulb has a second level of powerful
response to natural odor stimulation. The chronized bursts. If this were classical GABAergic interactions between the
authors postulate that synchronization can lateral inhibition, activating the glomeruli dendrites of output cells (mitral/tufted
enhance transmission of weak olfactory sig- together should have reduced the respons- cells) and the granule cell interneurons1.
nals and increase the contrast between the es, as happens in the retina when a light Are these mechanisms folded into the
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

stimulus and background odors. In terms shines on both the center and the sur- mechanisms of the glomeruli in the
of signal detection theory, this means round. Instead, synchronization is antennal lobe for output to the mush-
enhancing the signal-to-noise ratio, a fun- observed in the insect glomerulus response. room bodies, or are they unique to the
damental property of every sensory system, This result extends previous work point- vertebrate? With questions like these on
indeed, every system in the brain. ing to the importance of synchronization the agenda, there will be plenty of action
These results add to the number of in processing odor information2. Compu- for those interested in how neural mod-
mechanisms that have already been iden- tational models have shown how changes ules process information in the inverte-
tified for signal-to-noise enhancement in sychronization alone, independent of brate and vertebrate brain.
within a glomerulus. These include mas- spike frequencies or differences between
sive convergence of the incoming axons firing rates of different cells, can produce 1. Shepherd, G. M. & Greer, C. A. in The Synaptic
Organization of the Brain (ed. Shepherd, G. M.)
(up to 5000:1), voltage-gated dendritic changes in odor learning13. 159–203 (Oxford, New York, 1998).
properties that amplify the synaptic Lei et al. note that the enhanced pre-
2. Laurent, G. et al. Annu. Rev. Neurosci. 24,
responses11, and glutamate autoreceptors cision of the ensemble spiking bursts of 263–297 (2001).
that mediate re-excitation of the receiving the output cells is a “potential means of 3. Lei, H., Christensen, T. A. & Hildebrand, J. G.
dendrites9. All these mechanisms togeth- strengthening the spatial representation Nat. Neurosci. 5, 557–565 (2002).
er make the glomerulus a functional unit of the stimulus” by the odor maps. Their 4. Kauer, J. S. Trends Neurosci. 14, 79–85 (1991).
par excellence for detecting weak signals study sets a standard for future studies 5. Kashiwadani, H., Sasaki, Y. F., Uchida, N. &
within the noisy odor environment. of temporal patterning, which will Mori, K. J. Neurophysiol. 82, 1786–1792 (1999).
The second important finding of Lei et require precise knowledge of the con- 6. Xu, F. Q., Greer, C. A. & Shepherd, G. M.
al.3 is that the excitatory responses also pro- nections of the recorded cells within the J. Comp. Neurol. 422, 489–495 (2000).
duce an inhibitory hyperpolarization in the glomerular map. 7. Wong, A. M., Wang, J. W. & Axel, R. Cell 109,
other glomerulus. A common hypothesis Comparisons with the vertebrate olfac- 229–241 (2002).
has been that inter-glomerular inhibition tory bulb are particularly intriguing with 8. Marin, E. C., Jefferis, G. S. X. E., Komiyama, T.,
represents the kind of lateral inhibition that regard to cross-phyla principles1. At the Zhu, H. & Luo, L. Cell 202, 243–255 (2002).
is well known in the visual system, where glomerular level in the vertebrate olfactory 9. Carlson, G. C., Shipley, M. T. & Keller, A.
J. Neurosci. 20, 2011–2021 (2000).
it is involved in center–surround contrast bulb, most of the inhibitory GABAergic
enhancement. By analogy, it has been sug- interneurons have dendrites restricted to 10. Schoppa, N. E. & Westbrook, G. L. Neuron 31,
639–651 (2001).
gested in the olfactory bulb 4 and the one glomerulus; in contrast, in the insect
11. Chen, W. R., Midtgaard, J. & Shepherd, G. M.
insect12 that lateral inhibition can sharpen the GABAergic interneuronal dendrites Science 278, 463–467 (1997).
feature detection between cells connected penetrate multiple glomeruli (Fig. 1). In 12. Sachse, S. & Galizia, C. G. J. Neurophysiol. 87,
to neighboring glomeruli. this respect, the insect glomerulus may be 1106–1117 (2002).
Lei et al. also introduce a new insight to a more complex integrative unit than the 13. Linster, C. & Cleland, T. A. J. Comput. Neurosci.
the concept of lateral inhibition: when a vertebrate glomerulus. In support of this 10, 187–193 (2001).

salient spatial cues and our responses to

Posterior parietal cortex: them. The parietal lobes, for example,
have long been known to be central to
visually guided behaviors. Indeed, pari-
not just where, but how etal damage can give rise to a host of clin-
ical disorders, including hemispatial
Joshua I. Gold and Mark E. Mazurek neglect (lack of awareness of the half of
space contralateral to the lesion), simult-
Posterior parietal cortex is critical for spatial processing. Calton agnosia (inability to see multiple objects
et al. show that this area also represents the intention to make simultaneously) and optic ataxia
a certain type of movement, independent of its spatial target. (impairment of visually guided reaching).
These findings have cemented a primary
role in spatial cognition for the parietal
Shine a bright spot of light in an other- lobes, and in particular a subregion called
Joshua Gold is in the Department of
wise dark room, and the natural reaction the posterior parietal cortex (PPC)1.
Neuroscience, University of Pennsylvania,
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104, USA. Mark
is to attend to it, to look at it, possibly Based on these clinical findings, the
Mazurek is in the Department of Physiology even to reach toward it. These reactions PPC has become a prime target for study-
and Biophysics and RPRC, University of are so strong that it probably comes as no ing the neural mechanisms that link spa-
Washington, Seattle, Washington 98195, USA. surprise that extensive regions of the brain tial perception and action. Both
e-mail: seem to be dedicated to processing such electrophysiological recordings in mon-

506 nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002

news and views

neurons responded more strongly

for an impending arm movement
than for an impending eye move-
ment. Some were even the same
neurons that responded in a spa-
tially selective manner in the first
task and thus signaled different
aspects of the impending move-
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

ment in different behavioral con-

texts. These results indicate that,
contrary to conventional wisdom,
information processing in the PPC
is not always inherently spatial but
is more flexible and may also
encode specific motor intentions.
Fig. 1. A task used by Calton et al. to dissociate effector selection from spatial processing. To appreciate the potential dif-
ficulty in interpreting such data,
consider another possible explana-
keys and imaging studies in humans have tion. Perhaps the PPC responses that were
measured PPC activity while the subject is function6. In many tasks used to study the evident before the location of the target
making judgments about the position, PPC, monkeys are trained to make an eye was specified simply reflected the mon-
motion, shape, color or other attribute of or an arm movement to a visual target. key’s confidence that such a target would
sensory cues to guide movements of the These valuable studies have shown that eventually appear at a particular location.
eye or arm2–4. A common theme emerg- PPC neurons encode intended move- In this case, it would mean that the PPC
ing from these studies is that the PPC is ments toward particular places in space, signals during the delay period reflected
involved in identifying and interpreting and that they do so in an effector-specif- a spatial expectation, evident before any
salient stimuli and transforming this infor- ic manner (for instance, neurons can be spatial instruction was given. However,
mation into signals that guide movements specific for eye or arm movements) 2 . such an expectation would depend criti-
to particular locations5. In this issue, Cal- However, Calton and colleagues reasoned cally on the number of potential target
ton and colleagues now report that some that these tasks might confound two sep- locations: more locations imply more
PPC neurons also represent the intention arate processes, one concerned with uncertainty and therefore should produce
to make either an eye movement or an selecting the appropriate effector (typi- weaker anticipatory signals associated
arm movement before the animal knows cally thought to be the realm of motor with each location, as has been observed
the spatial parameters of the movement6, cortex and not the PPC) and another in brain areas that prepare spatially selec-
suggesting a more general role for the PPC with specifying a spatial goal (a tradi- tive eye-movement responses8,9. Instead,
in the transformation of sensory informa- tional view of PPC function). They there- Calton and colleagues demonstrated that
tion into the preparation for action. fore trained monkeys on two tasks although additional target uncertainty did
The ability to relate neural activity to designed to differentiate the neural sig- increase the monkeys’ response times as
behavior is the compelling feature of these nals responsible for these two processes. expected, it did not change the effector-
kind of studies, but also their Achilles’ In the first, a visual cue indicates the spa- specific signals in the PPC. This control
heel. Even the simplest perceptual tasks tial target of the movement, but the effec- buttresses the argument that these PPC
involve multiple stages of processing relat- tor is not specified until after a delay signals were independent of any spatially
ed to sensation, action and the cognitive period. In the second, a visual cue indi- selective processing related to the
functions that link them, such as atten- cates to the monkey whether it will be impending movement.
tion, intention and decision-making. How making an eye or an arm movement, but The discovery of non-spatial, effec-
can attention to a particular location in the spatial target of the movement is not tor-specific signals suggests that spatial
space be dissociated from the intention to revealed until after the delay (Fig. 1). processing, though undoubtedly funda-
look or reach there? How can a perceptu- For the first task, they found that some mental to PPC function, is not the whole
al decision be dissociated from the plan to neurons in the PPC responded during the story. The PPC is firmly established as
respond in a certain way? Carefully delay period in a spatially selective man- part of the ‘where’ pathway for visual
designed experiments are required to dis- ner. That is, after the monkey was processing10. These new results support
tinguish these mental processes and avoid instructed where the movement would go the idea that this region of cortex also
the dreaded question, “How do you know but not yet whether it would involve the reflects a ‘how’ component of motor
the task was being solved the way you arm or the eyes, the neural responses pre- intention11 that is not necessarily spa-
think it was being solved?” Particular care dicted the direction of movement. This tially selective. Thus, spatial processing
is needed when relating a specific mental result is consistent with the PPC’s well- may just be one part of a more general
process under investigation to neural supported role in spatial processing. For role of the PPC in the transformation of
activity in an area such as the PPC that the second task, they found that some sensory information into the prepara-
represents the convergence of many sen- PPC neurons responded during the delay tion for action.
sory, motor and cognitive processes7. period in an effector-specific manner.
Calton and colleagues used a novel That is, after the monkey was instructed 1. Colby, C. L. & Olson, C. R. in Fundamental
Neuroscience (eds. Zigmond, M. J., Bloom,
task design to meet these challenges and whether to move its arm or eyes but not F. E., Landis, S. C., Roberts, J. L. & Squire,
thus expand our understanding of PPC yet where to direct the movement, certain L. R.) 1363–1383 (Academic, New York, 1999).

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2. Snyder, L. H., Batista, A. P. & Andersen, R. A. 5, 10–16 (2001). 9. Dorris, M. C. & Munoz, D. P. J. Neurosci. 18,
Vision Res. 40, 1433–1441 (2000). 7015–7026 (1998).
6. Calton, J. L., Dickinson, A. R. & Snyder, L. H.
3. Colby, C. L. & Goldberg, M. E. Annu. Rev. Nat. Neurosci. 5, 580–588 (2002). 10. Ungerleider, L. G. & Mishkin, M. in Analysis of
Neurosci. 22, 319–349 (1999). Visual Behavior (eds. Ingle, D. J., Goodale,
7. Sparks, D. L. Curr. Opin. Neurobiol. 9, M. A. & Mansfield, R. J. W.) 549–586 (MIT
4. Culham, J. C. & Kanwisher, N. G. Curr. Opin. 698–707 (1999). Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1982).
Neurobiol. 11, 157–163 (2001). 8. Basso, M. A. & Wurtz, R. H. Nature 389, 11. Goodale, M. A. Curr. Opin. Neurobiol. 3,
5. Gold, J. I. & Shadlen, M. N. Trends Cogn. Sci. 66–69 (1997). 578–585 (1993).
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

observers’. As one might guess intuitive-

Illusions, perception and ly, the primary objective of an ideal
observer is to compute the probability of

Bayes each possible true state of the environ-

ment given the stimulus on the retina
Wilson S. Geisler and Daniel Kersten (the ‘posterior probability distribution’).
According to Bayes’ theorem, the poste-
A new model shows that a range of visual illusions in humans can rior probability is proportional to the
be explained as rational inferences about the odds that a motion product of the probability of each possi-
stimulus on the retina results from a particular real-world source. ble state of the environment before
receiving the stimulus (the prior proba-
Artists can create powerful illusions of This study is an excellent example of bility) and the probability of the stimu-
distance, size, shape and orientation by how Bayesian concepts are transforming lus given each possible state of the
mimicking on canvas the images that perception research by providing a rigor- environment (the likelihood). Thus,
would be formed on the retina by per- ous mathematical framework for repre- when an ideal observer (Fig. 1) receives
spective projection from a three-dimen- senting the physical and statistical a stimulus, it computes the likelihood
sional environment. These perceptual properties of the environment, describing and then multiplies by the prior proba-
errors seem to reveal a rational (but the tasks that perceptual systems are trying bility distribution to obtain the posterior
automatic) perceptual system designed to perform, and deriving appropriate com- probability distribution. In many appli-
to correctly interpret the retinal images putational theories of how to perform those cations, prior probability distributions
evoked by the world. This appealing tasks, given the properties of the environ- over the space of possible objects, events
explanation of visual illusions is often ment and the costs and benefits associated and/or lightings represent the ideal
viewed as insufficient, however, because with different perceptual decisions. observer’s knowledge of the environ-
many idiosyncratic illusions seem unlike The Bayesian framework had its ment, and likelihood distributions rep-
the rational solution to any problem. beginnings in Helmholtz’s notion of resent the ideal observer’s knowledge of
One such class of illusions concerns ‘unconscious inference’—the idea that projective geometry and the space of pos-
the effect of luminance contrast and the visual system incorporates implicit sible viewpoints. Once the posterior
shape on the perception of motion veloc- knowledge of the environment and probability distribution is determined,
ity. Surprisingly, the apparent speed and image formation, and uses this knowl- an ideal observer convolves the posteri-
direction of a moving pattern often edge to infer, automatically and uncon- or distribution with a utility function (or
changes substantially as the contrast and sciously, object properties from the loss function), which specifies the costs
shape of the pattern is varied. Such illu- ambiguous images they form on the and benefits associated with the differ-
sions are typically interpreted as the retina (see also refs. 2–4). As Helmholtz ent possible errors in the perceptual deci-
errors or epiphenomena of some impre- knew, retinal images are ambiguous sion. The result of this operation is the
cise neural mechanism that is attempt- because of natural variations in view- expected utility (or Bayes’ risk) associat-
ing to compute one of the quantities point and lighting: very different objects ed with each possible interpretation of
relevant for motion perception. Howev- can give rise to similar retinal images, the stimulus. Finally, the ideal observer
er, using the tools and logic of Bayesian and the same object can give rise to very picks the interpretation that has the max-
statistical decision theory, in this issue different retinal images. For example, a imum expected utility.
Weiss et al. 1 show that many of these circle and an ellipse can produce exact- Weiss et al. 1 derived such an ideal
seemingly idiosyncratic motion illusions, ly the same retinal image if the circle is observer and showed that it displays
in fact, may be exactly what one would slanted appropriately in depth, and the many of the same ‘illusions’ perceived by
expect from a rational perceptual system. same circle slanted in depth by different human observers. Their analysis was
Their results suggest that the human amounts can produce many different based on the plausible assumptions that
visual system may be closer to optimal images. Thus, the ambiguous stimulus low velocities are more likely than high
than once believed. in Fig. 1 can be seen as an ellipse in the velocities, and that there is more vari-
frontal plane or as a circle on a slanted ability at low contrasts (that is, retinal
plane. Bayesian statistical decision the- images are less reliable). Motion illusions
Wilson Geisler is in the Center for Perceptual
ory prescribes a framework for opti- can be understood as optimal adapta-
Systems, University of Texas Austin, Seay
mally interpreting such ambiguous tions rather than mistakes in other cases
Psychology Building, Austin, Texas 78712-7789,
USA. Daniel Kersten is in the Psychology Dept.,
retinal images. as well; for example, a Bayesian analysis
University of Minnesota, 75 E. River Rd., Theoretical devices that use Bayesian predicts correctly that changing the
Minneapolis, Minnesota 55455, USA. statistical decision theory to make opti- motion of a shadow alone can change the
e-mail: mal interpretations are called ‘ideal apparent three-dimensional motion of

508 nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002

news and views

Fig. 1. Bayesian ideal observers for tasks involving the perception

of objects or events that differ along two physical dimensions, such
as aspect ratio and slant, size and distance, or speed and direction
of motion. When a stimulus is received, the ideal observer com-
putes the likelihood of receiving that stimulus for each possible pair
of dimension values (that is, for each possible interpretation). It
then multiplies this likelihood distribution by the prior probability
distribution for each pair of values to obtain the posterior probabil-
ity distribution—the probability of each possible pair of values
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

given the stimulus. Finally, the posterior probability distribution is

convolved with a utility function, representing the costs and bene-
fits of different levels of perceptual accuracy, to obtain the expected
utility associated with each possible interpretation. The ideal
observer picks the interpretation that maximizes the expected util-
ity. (Black dots and curves indicate the maxima in each of the plots.)
As a tutorial example, the figure was constructed with a specific
task in mind; namely, determining the aspect ratio and slant of a
tilted ellipse from a measurement of the aspect ratio (x) of the
image on the retina. The black curve in the likelihood plot shows
the ridge of maximum likelihood corresponding to the combina-
tions of slant and aspect ratio that are exactly consistent with x; the
other non-zero likelihoods occur because of noise in the image and
in the measurement of x. The prior probability distribution corre-
sponds to the assumption that surface patches tend to be slanted
away at the top and have aspect ratios closer to 1.0. The asymmet-
ric utility function corresponds to the assumption that it is more
important to have an accurate estimate of slant than aspect ratio.

an object 5 . However, the examples of bution on object shapes and materials, a estimate of speed and direction. Several
Weiss et al.1 are particularly interesting prior probability distribution on lighting, other recent applications of Bayesian
because they seemed unlikely to be opti- and a stimulus likelihood distribution analysis show that the human visual sys-
mal adaptations before the Bayesian that incorporates the interactions between tem can dynamically adjust weights on
analysis was done. For example, this objects and lighting, and the effects of different information sources, often in a
analysis explains the odd combination of perspective projection and viewpoint. near-optimal way9–11.
facts that a thin horizontally moving This Bayesian generative model has Although the Bayesian model
rhombus appears to move diagonally at recently motivated a number of novel and proposed by Weiss et al.1 makes the cor-
low contrasts and horizontally at high testable hypotheses. To give just one rect qualitative predictions for many
contrasts, whereas a fat rhombus appears example, Bloj et al.8 demonstrated that motion illusions, the quantitative pre-
to move horizontally at all contrasts. perceived surface color can depend upon dictions are not perfect. This is not sur-
The Bayesian approach has advan- the perceived three-dimensional surface prising for a nearly parameter-free
tages over other approaches in percep- configuration in a perceptually bistable model, but the potential reasons for less-
tion research. To begin with, it prescribes image, even when the retinal images never than-perfect quantitative predictions are
a principled method for determining change. They predicted this effect from a worth considering. First, the predictions
optimal performance in a given percep- Bayesian ideal observer that understands depend on the exact shape of the prior
tual task. This can be a very useful exer- the effects of mutual surface illumination. probability and likelihood distributions.
cise because it forces one to consider Finally, the Bayesian approach allows The assumption that low velocities are
carefully the various constraints that one to understand precisely how the reli- more probable than high velocities is
apply in the perceptual task, and the ability of different sources of information, likely to be correct qualitatively, but the
Bayesian ideal observer provides an including prior knowledge, should be specific prior probability distribution that
appropriate benchmark against which to combined by a perceptual system. Differ- Weiss et al. assumed is still just an edu-
compare human performance. Further- ent sources of information do not always cated guess. Undoubtedly, the prior prob-
more, ideal observers are often easily keep the same relative reliability, and ability and likelihood distributions
modified by incorporating anatomical, hence a rational perceptual system should incorporated implicitly into the visual
physiological and other constraints, mak- adjust the weights that it assigns to dif- system arise through a combination of
ing them an excellent starting point for ferent information sources contingent evolution and perceptual learning, and
developing testable models6,7. upon their current relative reliabilities. thus it would be appropriate to estimate
Another advantage of the Bayesian This sort of weight adjustment is at the these distributions by measuring and
approach is that it divides perceptual tasks heart of the account of motion illusions analyzing natural scene statistics. Prior
into convenient and intuitive pieces that from Weiss et al.1. When contrast is low, probability and likelihood distributions
can be considered singly and then com- retinal image information becomes less measured in the natural environment
bined to understand the whole. For exam- reliable, and so the Bayesian ideal observ- may lead to more accurate predictions of
ple, the Bayesian approach naturally er shifts more weight to the prior proba- perceptual performance. For example, a
partitions the ‘generative model’ for reti- bility distribution on motion velocity; this Bayesian model derived from co-occur-
nal images into a prior probability distri- shift in relative weight alters the optimal rence statistics for the geometrical rela-

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news and views

tionships between edges in natural scenes physical limitations, and from the design (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996).
quantitatively predicts human ability to compromises required because biological 4. Yuille, A. L. & Bülthoff, H. H. in Perception as
detect contours on complex backgrounds, systems must perform many tasks. In sup- Bayesian Inference (eds. Knill, D. C. &
Richards, R. W.) 123–161 (Cambridge Univ.
under a range of conditions12. plementary material, Weiss et al. demon- Press, 1996).
Second, Weiss et al.1 used the standard strate that plausible neural constraints bring 5. Kersten, D. in The New Cognitive Neurosciences.
utility function that corresponds to pick- the predictions of their model into better 2nd Edn. (ed. Gazzaniga, M. S.) 353–363 (MIT
ing the interpretation with the maximum quantitative agreement with the data. Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1999).
posterior probability (Fig. 1, black dot in Finally, real perceptual systems are 6. Geisler, W. Psychol. Rev. 96, 267–314 (1989).
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

lower middle panel). The choice of utili- designed through natural selection and 7. Liu, Z. & Kersten, D. Vision Res. 38, 2507–2519
ty function should have a minor effect in perceptual learning, which sometimes find (1998).
their situation, but the choice can be local optima in design space, rather than 8. Bloj, M. G., Kersten, D. & Hurlbert, A. C.
Nature 402, 877–879 (1999).
important in some situations 13,14. For the global optimum of the Bayesian ideal
example, if smaller errors have greater observer. However, this fact does not 9. Saunders, J. A. & Knill, D. C. Vision Res. 41,
3163–3183 (2001).
utility than larger errors, and if the pos- diminish the value of the Bayesian
10. Mamassian, P., Landy, M. S. & Maloney, L. T.
terior probability distribution contains a approach; indeed, the concepts of Bayesian in Statistical Theories of the Brain (eds. Rao, R.,
tall narrow peak and a short wide peak, statistical decision theory lend themselves Olshausen, B. & Lewicki, M.) 13–36 (MIT
then the maximum expected utility may elegantly to rigorous formulations of nat- Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2002).
be at the short peak rather than the tall ural selection15. Thus, even in the broader 11. Ernst, M. O. & Banks, M. S. Nature 415,
peak. Also, the most appropriate utility biological context of plasticity, learning 429–433 (2002).
function when considering biological and natural selection, the Bayesian 12. Geisler, W. S., Perry, J. S., Super, B. J. &
Gallogly, D. P. Vision Res. 41, 711–724 (2001).
vision is arguably one based on fitness15. approach may prove to be optimal.
Third, as Weiss et al.1 point out, their 13. Brainard, D. H. & Freeman, W. T. J. Opt. Soc.
1. Weiss, Y., Simoncelli, E. & Adelson, E. H. Nat. Am. A 14, 1393–1411 (1997).
Bayesian model does not consider certain
Neurosci. 5, 598–604 (2002). 14. Schrater, P. R. & Kersten, D. How optimal
fundamental biological constraints, such as depth cue integration depends on the task. Int.
2. Freeman, W. T. Nature 368, 542–545 (1994).
the limited dynamic range and limited J. Comput. Vision 40, 73–91 (2000).
3. Knill, D. C., Kersten, D. & Yuille, A. in
speed of neural responses. Such constraints Perception as Bayesian Inference (eds. 15. Geisler, W. S. & Diehl, R. Phil. Trans. R. Soc.
undoubtedly arise (ultimately) from bio- Knill, D. C. & Richards, R. W.) 1–21 Lond. B Biol. Sci. 357, 419–448 (2002).

Wnt signals lead cells down the caudal path

During development, progenitor cells along the rostrocaudal axis of the neural tube are instructed to become forebrain, midbrain,
hindbrain or spinal cord. Cells of the caudal brain are believed to arise through reprogramming (‘caudalization’) of cells that initially
show characteristics of rostral brain. On page 525 of this issue, Thomas Edlund and
colleagues now report that Wnt signals from the posterior mesoderm are required for
caudalization. FGF and retinoic acid also contribute to the induction of midbrain,
hindbrain and spinal cord, but previous studies showed that these factors were not
sufficient on their own. Despite earlier indications that Wnt signals were involved in
specifying caudal brain character, because they have a variety of other functions in
development, it was unclear whether their role in caudalization was direct or
indirect. Therefore, the present work provides a crucial additional piece in this
developmental puzzle.
To examine the role of Wnt signaling, the authors used explant cultures of chick
neural plate along with immunohistochemical labeling for expression of a
combination of transcription factors which selectivity delineate the various brain
regions (yellow, rostral forebrain; red/green, rostral and caudal midbrain; light/dark
blue, rostral hindbrain). When explants of caudal neural plate were taken from a
stage at which the cells still exhibited primarily rostral characteristics and were co-
cultured with caudal mesoderm, cells expressed markers for caudal brain regions. If
Wnt signaling was inhibited, however, the cells retained their rostral character. If the
authors then cultured neural plate explants from a later stage when cells were
already specified to eventually make rostral, middle and caudal brain regions, they
found that Wnt signaling was still directly necessary for the induction of caudal
character. Finally, when explants from the eventual rostral forebrain region of the
neural plate were cultured in the presence of FGF and varying concentrations of
Wnt conditioned medium, the authors found that increasing concentrations of Wnt
resulted in expression of progressively more caudal brain markers. Therefore, the new results firmly establish a direct role for a
graded Wnt signal in directing the caudalization of neural plate cells during early neural tube development.

Brian Fiske

510 nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002

brief communications

Nax channel involved in in which the Nax gene was knocked-out by insertion of the lacZ
gene in-frame; we found that the Nax channel was expressed in
CNS sodium-level sensing neurons in the CVOs, like the SFO and organum vasculosum
laminae terminalis (OVLT), which are important regions for the
control of body fluid ionic balance8. Under thirst conditions,
Takeshi Y. Hiyama1, Eiji Watanabe1, Kentaro Ono2, Nax-deficient mice showed hyperactivity of the neurons in these
Kiyotoshi Inenaga2, Michael M. Tamkun3, areas and ingested excessive salt; wild-type mice stopped salt
Shigeru Yoshida4,5 and Masaharu Noda1 ingestion. This led us to propose that Nax is involved in the sodi-
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

um-level sensing mechanism in the brain8.

1 Division of Molecular Neurobiology and Center for Transgenic Animals and We verified this possibility by imaging analysis9 of changes in
Plants, National Institute for Basic Biology, and Department of Molecular the intracellular sodium-ion concentration [Na+]i when extra-
Biomechanics, Graduate University for Advanced Studies, Myodaiji-cho, cellular sodium-ion concentration [Na+]o was raised stepwise
Okazaki 444-8585, Japan from the normal amount. We used dorsal root ganglion (DRG)
2 Department of Physiology, Kyushu Dental College, Manazuru, Kokurakitaku,
neurons because all DRG neurons are Nax-positive, whereas only
Kitakyushu 803-8580, Japan
a subpopulation of neurons in the SFO or OVLT are Na x -
3 Department of Physiology, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado
positive8. When [Na+]o was increased from the control amount of
80523, USA
145 mM to 170 mM (high sodium solution) by bath application
4 Laboratory of Intracellular Metabolism, National Institute for Physiological
of NaCl solution, the [Na+]i of dissociated neurons derived from
Sciences, Myodaiji-cho, Okazaki 444-8585, Japan
wild-type mice showed a pronounced increase from ∼10 mM to
5 Department of Physiology, Nagasaki University School of Medicine, Nagasaki
∼30 mM (118/118 samples; Fig. 1a–c). The time taken to reach
852-8523, Japan
the plateau was 19.3 ± 4.2 min (n = 85; Fig. 1b), and tetrodotox-
Correspondence should be addressed to M.N. ( in (TTX; 1 µM)—a potent blocker of TTX-sensitive voltage-gated
Published online: 6 May 2002, DOI: 10.1038/nn856 sodium channels—did not antagonize the response (Fig. 1c). In
contrast, there was no significant increase in the [Na+]i detected
Mammals feel thirsty or an appetite for salt when the correct bal- in DRG neurons (87/87 samples) isolated from Nax-deficient
ance between water and sodium in the body fluid has been dis- mice (Fig. 1a–c). The cytosolic sodium response was detected in
rupted, but little is known about the mechanism in the brain that DRG neurons of various sizes from wild-type mice, consistent
controls salt homeostasis. It has been postulated that the exis- with the ubiquitous expression of Nax in DRG neurons8.
tence of both an osmoreceptor and a specific sodium receptor is To identify the key factor involved in this response, we raised
essential if the experimental data are to be encompassed1,2. Sev- osmolarity or chloride concentration [Cl–]o to that of the ‘high
eral candidate osmoreceptors have been identified3–5, and here sodium solution’ without changing [Na+]o, and none of the cells
we show that the Nax channel in the circumventricular organs (from either wild-type or Nax-deficient mice) responded with a
(CVO) is a probable candidate for the specific sodium receptor. change in [Na+]i. When the sodium concentration was raised
The Na x channel—formerly called NaG/SCL11 (in rats), with sodium methanesulfonate, however, there was a response
Nav2.3 (in mice) and Nav2.1 (in humans)—has been classified (Fig. 1c). Thus we concluded that neurons responded to the rise
as a subfamily of voltage-gated sodium channels6. The primary in [Na+]o but not to the rise in osmolarity or [Cl–]o. [Na+]o at
structure of Nax, however, is markedly different from the other the half-maximal (C1/2) was 159 mM (Fig. 1d). When [Na+]o was
voltage-gated sodium channel family members and includes dif- lowered from the control amount of 145 mM to 140 or 120 mM,
ferences in the key regions for voltage sensing and inactivation7. no [Na+]i response was seen (Fig. 1d).
Until now, the functional properties of the channel have been We confirmed these findings with whole-cell current record-
poorly understood, as attempts at functional expression of Nax ings of DRG neurons using a patch-clamp technique. When ‘high
in heterologous systems have failed. We recently generated mice sodium solution’ was applied to cells derived from wild-type mice,

Fig. 1. Nax is a sodium concentration–sensitive sodium channel.

(a) Pseudocolor images showing [Na+]i of cells in the control solution Control 170 mM NaCl
([Na+]o = 145 mM) and in high sodium solution ([Na+]o = 170 mM) at
a b 40
the times indicated with vertical broken lines in (b). Neurons were +/+
[Na+] (mM)

derived from wild-type (+/+) and Nax-null (–/–) mice. Scale bars, 50 µm.

(b) Time-course of [Na+]i responses of the cells indicated by an arrow- 30 −/−
[Na+]i (mM)

head and arrow in (a). Time 0 was the time at which the extracellular 10
fluid was changed. (c) [Na+]i response is dependent on [Na+]o, but not −/− 20
170 mM NaCl
on extracellular [Cl–]o or osmotic pressure. Instead of NaCl, 50 mM 10 0

–10 0 10 20 30
mannitol, 25 mM choline chloride or 25 mM sodium methanesulfonate (min)

was added to the control solution. *P < 0.001 with one-tailed Mann- c 40 * * *
d 2.5 e
Whitney tests; n = 85. Data are shown as mean ± s.d. [Na+]i. +/+
+/+ 2.0
R (mM/min)

(d) Relationship between the [Na+]i increase rate (R) and [Na+]o. R was 30 −/−
[Na+] (mM)

calculated from the slope between 20% and 80% of maximum [Na+]i. −/−

20 1.0
The solid line is the fit of the data to the equation R = RMax/(1 + 0.5 10 s
exp((C1/2 - C)/a)), where C = [Na+]o. The values RMax = 2.02 mM/min, 10 –5 pA

C1/2 = 159 mM and a = 5.21 mM were used; n = 21. (e) Whole-cell cur-
f 0
+/+ −/−
0 –0.5
rent responses of DRG neurons to an increase of [Na+]o from 145 to 120 140 160 180 200 220
I Na (pA)
0 m ate etha e
Ma aCl

sudium chlo l

0 m ontro

So line nnito


lfo m rid

C (mM)

170 mM (bar). (f) The mean amplitudes of the whole-cell currents


observed in wild-type and Nax-null cells. *P < 0.005 by one-tailed Mann-




Whitney tests; n = 10.


nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002 511

brief communications

a b 40 a Control 170 mM Anti-Nax

* Nax+


[Na+] (mM)

[Na+] (mM)

© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

Control 170 mM
NaCl [Na+] 10 20 30 (mM)

Fig. 2. Nax cDNA transfection conferred [Na ]o sensitivity on Nax- +

b 40
c 3.5
deficient cells. (a) EGFP fluorescence image. Top, cells indicated by * * 3.0
arrowheads were transfected with both Nax and EGFP expression vec- 30 2.5

R (mM/min)
[Na+] i (mM)
tors. Bottom, pseudocolor image showing [Na+]i increase in the 2.0
170 mM solution. Scale bar, 50 µm. (b) Comparison of the response of 20 1.5

cells that were cotransfected with both Nax and EGFP expression vec- 1.0

tors (Nax+) and cells transfected only with EGFP expression vector 10 0.5

(Nax–). [Na+]i was measured 5 min after [Na+]i leveled off. *P < 0.001 0
0 –0.5
by one-tailed Mann-Whitney tests; n = 30.

M ol

120 140 160 180 200 220

su ium hlo ol
0 m at eth e

17 fon m rid
0 m ontr

So holin nnit

C (mM)

M a


M e

inward currents with an average amplitude of 8.4 pA were observed
(n = 10; Fig. 1e, f). The current amplitude was consistent with that Fig. 3. Sodium-concentration sensitivity was lost in SFO neurons in
the Nax-null mutants. (a) Pseudocolor images showing the [Na+]i of
estimated from the ion-imaging studies (6.7 pA, see Supplemen-
the cells in the control and high sodium solutions. Scale bar, 50 µm.
tary Methods online). By contrast, the current was not observed (b) The [Na+]i response is dependent on [Na+]o, but not on extracel-
in cells derived from Nax-deficient mice (n = 10; Fig. 1e, f), and it lular [Cl–]o or osmotic pressure. Instead of NaCl, 50 mM mannitol,
was not inactivated under ‘high sodium solution’ conditions; 25 mM choline chloride or 25 mM sodium methanesulfonate was
instead, it disappeared rapidly when extracellular sodium was set added to the control solution. *P < 0.001 by one-tailed Mann-
back to normal amounts. There was no voltage dependency when Whitney tests; n = 85. (c) Relationship between the [Na+]i increase
the I-V relation was recorded between –90 and –40 mV during the rate (R) and [Na+]o. The values RMax = 3.04 mM/min, C1/2 = 157 mM,
application of ‘high sodium solution’ (data not shown); and the and a = 4.67 mM were used; n = 20.
current amplitude was not affected by 1 µM TTX (data not shown).
For further confirmation, we constructed an Nax expression
vector using mouse Nax cDNA and introduced it into the disso- such responses (70 samples; Fig. 3a). These results indicate that
ciated DRG neurons from Nax-deficient mice. To identify those the Nax channel is essential for central sodium reception.
that had been successfully transfected with Na x , cells were Thus, Nax is a newly identified type of sodium channel that
cotransfected with an enhanced green fluorescent protein (EGFP) is sensitive to an increase in the extracellular sodium concen-
expression vector (Fig. 2a, top). When [Na+]o was increased from tration, and is likely to be the sodium-level sensor of body flu-
145 mM to 170 mM, an [Na+]i response similar to that in wild- ids in the brain.
type neurons was seen: 93.5% (43/46 samples) of the EGFP-pos-
itive neurons (most of which were also transfected with Nax) Note: Supplementary information is available on the Nature Neuroscience website.
acquired the [Na+]i response (Fig. 2a, bottom, and Fig. 2b). In
all control experiments (n = 48)—in which neurons were trans- Acknowledgments
fected only with an EGFP expression vector—no [Na+]i response We thank T. Mohri for technical advice and comments on the manuscript; M.
was detected (Fig. 2b). Yasuda, A. Tozaki and C. Egusa for technical assistance; and A. Kodama for
These findings strongly support a physiological role for the secretarial assistance. This study was supported by grants-in-aid from the
Nax channel in body fluid homeostasis. Sodium concentrations Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology of Japan, and
and plasma osmolarity increase by 5–10% during thirst condi- from the Japan Science and Technology Corporation (CREST).
tions 10,11. The sensitivity and threshold of Na x channels to
[Na+]o is in this range of physiological change. SFO and OVLT Competing interests statement
are regions where a blood-brain barrier is missing, enabling The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.
cells to directly monitor body fluid conditions. We detected a
similar [Na+]i response in neurons that were dissociated from RECEIVED 11 JANUARY 2002; ACCEPTED 25 MARCH 2002.
the SFO of wild-type mice (41/70 samples; 58.6%); all the
[Na+]i-responsive cells in this region were also Nax-immunore- 1. Johnson, A. K. & Edwards, G. L. Curr. Top. Neuroendocrinol. 10, 149–190 (1990).
active cells (41/41 samples; Fig. 3a). When ‘high sodium solu- 2. Denton, D. A., McKinley, M. J. & Weisinger, R. S. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA
93, 7397–7404 (1996).
tion’ was applied to the cells, the [Na + ] i of these neurons 3. Oliet, S. H. R. & Bourque, C. W. Nature 364, 341–343 (1993).
increased over a time-course similar to that in DRG cells. The 4. Liedtke, W. et al. Cell 103, 525–535 (2000).
Nax-immunopositive SFO neurons responded to an increase in 5. Wells, T. Mol. Cell. Endocrinol. 136, 103–107 (1998).
6. Goldin, A. L. et al. Neuron 28, 365–368 (2000).
[Na+]o, but not to increases in osmolarity or [Cl–]o (Fig. 3b). 7. Goldin, A. L. Annu. Rev. Physiol. 63, 871–894 (2001).
The threshold value for the [Na+]o was 157 mM (Fig. 3c), which 8. Watanabe, E. et al. J. Neurosci. 20, 7743–7751 (2000).
9. Minta, A. & Tsien, R. Y. J. Biol. Chem. 264, 19449–19457 (1989).
is approximately equal to the value obtained from DRG. In con- 10. Wakerley, J. B., Poulain, D. A. & Brown, D. Brain Res. 148, 425–440 (1978).
trast, no SFO neurons derived from Nax-deficient mice showed 11. Nose, H. et al. J. Appl. Physiol. 73, 1419–1424 (1992).

512 nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002

brief communications

Acute versus chronic NMDARs are crucial in the developmental acquisition of

AMPAR-mediated synaptic transmission, and that chronic dis-
NMDA receptor blockade abling of NMDAR function triggers compensatory mechanisms
for NMDAR-independent AMPAfication.
and synaptic AMPA We monitored AMPAfication during development by mea-
suring the ratio of synaptic AMPAR responses to synaptic
receptor delivery NMDAR responses (A/N). As previously shown in hip-
pocampus1,15 and other brain regions2,3, A/N increases rapid-
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

ly during the first postnatal week (Fig. 1a and b), with little
J. Julius Zhu1,2 and Roberto Malinow1 change during the second week. To determine the role of
1Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, 1 Bungtown Road, Cold Spring Harbor, NY
NMDAR activity, we prepared hippocampal slices from rats
of different ages—postnatal day 3 (P3), P6, P9 and P12—and
11724, USA
2Department of Pharmacology, University of Virginia School of Medicine, 1300
incubated them for 20–24 hours in culture medium contain-
Jefferson Park Avenue, Charlottesville, VA 22908, USA
ing the NMDAR antagonist AP5 (200 µM DL-2-amino-5-phos-
phonovaleric acid). In slices treated with AP5 (200 µM), A/N
Correspondence should be addressed to R.M. (
was significantly smaller (P < 0.05) compared to untreated
Published online: 22 April 2002, DOI: 10.1038/nn850 slices (Fig. 1a and b), but only at ages where A/N was increas-
ing. Thus, NMDAR blockade prevented the developmental
Anatomical and electrophysiological experiments1–6 show that increase in A/N, supporting the view that AMPAfication dur-
central excitatory synapses initially display NMDA (N-methyl- ing development requires NMDAR function.
D-aspartate) receptors (NMDARs) and subsequently mature by To examine the effects of chronic NMDAR blockade, we pre-
acquiring AMPA (α-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazole pro- pared slices from P6 rats and maintained them in culture medi-
pionic acid) receptors (AMPARs). NMDAR activation can lead um, either with or without 200 µM AP5. The A/N ratio was
to rapid synaptic delivery of AMPARs (‘AMPAfication’)7,8, but calculated at 1–2 day intervals for 12 days; AP5 was refreshed
the view that AMPAfication during development requires along with media every 48 hours (Fig. 1c and d). As expected,
NMDAR activation has been challenged by studies showing that A/N of neurons in AP5-treated slices was significantly smaller
chronic removal of NMDAR function (either genetically9,10 or
pharmacologically11–14) has no apparent effect on acquisition of a
AMPAR-mediated synaptic transmission. Here we show that

Fig. 1. Effects of acute and chronic blockade of NMDA receptors on

glutamatergic synapses in hippocampus. (a) Evoked AMPAR-mediated
(–60 mV, measured at the peak) and NMDAR-mediated
(+40 mV, measured at 75 ms after stimulation) synaptic responses in
hippocampal CA1 neurons recorded in physiological solution. Slices
were prepared from rats of different ages (P3, P9, P12) and maintained6 b
in culture medium with (AP5, red traces) or without (Ctrl, black traces)
AP5 for one day (1d). Animals were treated in a manner consistent with
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Animal Care and Utilization Review
Board. (b) Plot of the ratio of AMPA response to NMDA response
(A/N) versus time (age of animal + culture time). Horizontal red bars
indicate period of AP5 treatment. For P3+1d cells, control (black dia-
mond) values were 0.86 ± 0.09, n = 14; and AP5 (red diamond),
0.50 ± 0.13, n = 16 (P < 0.05). For P6+1d cells, control (black circle) val-
ues were 1.75 ± 0.15, n = 12; and AP5 (red circle) values were
1.12 ± 0.24, n = 12 (P < 0.05). For P9+1d cells, control (black square)
values were 2.01 ± 0.26, n = 16; and AP5 (red square) values were
1.92 ± 0.26, n = 16 (P = 0.80). For P12+1d cells, control (black triangle)
values were 1.92 ± 0.20, n = 16; and AP5 (red triangle) values were c
1.80 ± 0.18, n = 15 (P = 0.67). (c) Evoked AMPAR- and NMDAR-medi-
ated synaptic responses from CA1 neurons. Slices were prepared from
P6 animals and maintained in culture medium (with or without AP5) for
1–12 d. Scale bar as in (a). (d) Plot of A/N against time (age of animal +
culture time). Values for P6+1d cells are the same as in (b). Values for
P6+2d cells: Ctrl, 2.12 ± 0.34, n = 16; AP5, 1.20 ± 0.15, n = 16
(P < 0.05); P6+4d cells: Ctrl, 2.13 ± 0.29, n = 12; AP5, 1.10 ± 0.13, d
n = 15 (P < 0.005); P6+6d cells: Ctrl, 1.90 ± 0.37, n = 16; AP5,
1.43 ± 0.22, n = 16 (P = 0.29); P6+8d cells: Ctrl, 1.94 ± 0.22, n = 16;
AP5, 1.79 ± 0.23, n = 16 (P = 0.45); P6+10d cells: Ctrl, 2.02 ± 0.32,
n = 16; AP5, 1.96 ± 0.26, n = 16 (P = 0.90); P6+12d cells: Ctrl,
1.92 ± 0.19, n = 16; AP5, 1.80 ± 0.17, n = 16 (P = 0.65). AP5 was
refreshed with culture medium every 48 h. Note that inclusion of AP5
(200 µM) in the medium, which has been shown to completely block
NMDA-R-mediated responses11–13, impaired AMPAfication for the first
4 d. Asterisks indicate significant difference between AP5-treated and
untreated cells (P < 0.05, t-test).
nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002 513
brief communications

(P < 0.05) than in control slices after 1–3 days of treatment, Acknowledgments
indicating that AP5 blocked AMPAfication. However, A/N began We thank N. Dawkins-Pisani for technical assistance, and H. Cline and
to increase after 4 days of treatment with AP5. Slices treated with members of the Malinow laboratory for helpful comments and discussions. This
AP5 for 8 or more days had significantly higher A/N ratios than study was supported by the National Institutes of Health (R.M.), the Alle Davis
did slices treated for 4 days or less (P < 0.05). After 8 days of AP5 and Maxine Harrison Endowment (R.M.), the Alzheimer’s Association (J.J.Z.)
treatment, slices became indistinguishable from untreated slices. and the Fraxa Medical Research Foundation (J.J.Z.). J.J.Z. is a Naples
The appearance of AMPAR responses after chronic NMDAR Investigator of the NARSAD (National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia
blockade is consistent with previous pharmacological11–14 and and Depression) Foundation.
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

genetic9,10 experiments. Together, these findings indicate that

additional NMDAR-independent mechanisms, recruited by Competing interests statement
chronic blockade of NMDAR activity, may be capable of driving The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.
We conclude that blockade of NMDAR activity can impair RECEIVED 23 JANUARY; ACCEPTED 26 MARCH 2002
AMPAfication of glutamatergic synapses during development.
However, our finding that AMPAfication of synaptic responses 1. Durand, G. M., Kovalchuk, Y. & Konnerth, A. Nature 381, 71–75 (1996).
resumed after 4 days of chronic blockade of NMDAR function 2. Wu, G., Malinow, R. & Cline, H. T. Science 274, 972–976 (1996).
indicates that other mechanisms are involved. Although we can- 3. Isaac, J. T., Crair, M. C., Nicoll, R. A. & Malenka, R. C. Neuron 18, 269–280
not eliminate the possibility of an incomplete blockade by 4. Nusser, Z. et al. Neuron 21, 545–559 (1998).
200 µM AP5, this is unlikely given that similar results were 5. Petralia, R. S. et al. Nat. Neurosci. 2, 31–36 (1999).
6. Zhu, J. J., Esteban, J. A., Hayashi, Y. & Malinow, R. Nat. Neurosci. 3,
obtained in animals completely lacking functional NMDARs9. It 1098–1106 (2000).
will be interesting to determine the nature of these mechanisms 7. Hayashi, Y. et al. Science 287, 2262–2267 (2000).
and whether other NMDAR-dependent processes, such as long- 8. Liao, D., Scannevin, R. H. & Huganir, R. J. Neurosci 21, 6008–6017 (2001).
9. Li, Y., Erzurumlu, R. S., Chen, C., Jhaveri, S. & Tonegawa, S. Cell 76, 427–437
term potentiation and long-term depression, become NMDAR- (1994).
independent after chronic NMDAR blockade. Lastly, this study 10. Kutsuwada, T. et al. Neuron 16, 333–344 (1996).
shows that multiple ‘reserve mechanisms’ may exist for certain 11. Rao, A. & Craig, A. M. Neuron 19, 801–812 (1997).
12. O’Brien, R. J. et al. Neuron 21, 1067–1078 (1998).
cellular processes, and that they may be recruited only under spe- 13. Gomperts, S. N., Carroll, R., Malenka, R. C. & Nicoll, R. A. J. Neurosci. 20,
cial conditions. This could explain why chronically disabling a 2229–2237 (2000).
14. Luthi, A., Schwyzer, L., Mateos, J. M., Gahwiler, B. H. & McKinney, R. A. Nat.
gene or suppressing a protein’s function often shows no obvious Neurosci. 4, 1102–1107 (2001).
effects or an unexpected phenotype. 15. Hsia, A. Y., Malenka, R. C. & Nicoll, R. A. J. Neurophysiol. 79, 2013–2024 (1998).

Sniffing neuropeptides: a ly to healthy humans (9 female, 27 male, 25–41 years of age), and
the concentration of each peptide was measured within 80 min-
transnasal approach to utes after administration in samples of CSF and systemic blood
obtained through intraspinal (between L4 and L5) and intra-
the human brain venous (forearm) catheters. Catheterization was done two hours
before the sampling period began.
Jan Born1, Tanja Lange2, Werner Kern2, Intranasal administration of each peptide resulted in an ele-
vation of its concentration in the CSF (Fig. 1). We saw statisti-
Gerard P. McGregor3, Ulrich Bickel4 and Horst L. Fehm2
cally significant peptide accumulation in the CSF within 80
1Departments of Neuroendocrinology and 2Internal Medicine, University of minutes after administration with the higher dose of
Lübeck, Ratzeburger Allee 160, 23538 Lübeck, Germany MSH/ACTH(4–10) (10 mg), with the higher and lower doses of
3Department of Physiology, University of Marburg, Deutschhausstrasse 2, 35037 vasopressin (80 and 40 IU) and with insulin (40 IU), as com-
Marburg, Germany pared to pre-administration baseline concentrations and to con-
4Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Texas Tech University Health Sciences centrations in subjects administered sterile water as a placebo
Center, School of Pharmacy, 1300 Coulter Drive, Amarillo, Texas 79106, USA (Table 1). Also, a marginally significant (P = 0.05) increase in
Correspondence should be addressed to J.B. ( CSF concentration occurred between 60 and 80 minutes after
administration of the lower dose of MSH/ACTH(4–10) (5 mg).
Published online: 29 April 2002, DOI: 10.1038/nn849 Increases in the CSF concentration of each peptide varied con-
siderably among subjects. For all three peptides, however, mean
Neuropeptides act as neuronal messengers in the brain, influenc- CSF concentrations began to rise within 10 minutes of intranasal
ing many neurobehavioral functions1. Their experimental and ther- administration. For MSH/ACTH(4–10) and insulin, peak levels
apeutic use in humans has been hampered because, when were attained within 30 minutes after administration; for vaso-
administered systemically, these compounds do not readily pass the pressin, CSF concentrations continued to increase for up to 80
blood–brain barrier, and they evoke potent hormone-like side effects minutes after administration. For each peptide, concentrations
when circulating in the blood2,3. We administered three peptides, did not return to baseline before the end of the 80-minute sam-
melanocortin(4–10) (MSH/ACTH(4–10)), vasopressin and insulin, pling period. More prolonged sampling in a subgroup of sub-
intranasally and found that they achieved direct access to the cere- jects receiving the higher doses of MSH/ACTH(4–10) and
brospinal fluid (CSF) within 30 minutes, bypassing the bloodstream. vasopressin showed that concentrations of peptides in the CSF
We selected the three peptides for their well-documented levels were still above those in placebo-treated subjects 100–120
effects on brain functions including learning, memory, and body- minutes after administration (P < 0.03 for MSH/ACTH(4–10),
weight regulation1,4,5. We administered the peptides intranasal- P < 0.009 for vasopressin).

514 nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002

brief communications

Fig. 1. Peptide accumulation in cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) and blood. Concentrations of (a)
MSH/ACTH(4–10) (b) vasopressin and (c) insulin in CSF (left) and blood serum (right) from a
10 min before to 80 min after their intranasal administration in humans. Doses were
MSH/ACTH(4–10), 10 mg (thick solid line, n = 5) and 5 mg (thin solid, n = 4); arginine–
vasopressin, 80 IU (thick solid, n = 5) and 40 IU (thin solid, n = 4); human insulin, 40 IU (thick
solid, n = 8). Placebo (sterile water), thin dashed line (n = 7 for control of MSH/ACTH(4–10),
n = 5 for control of vasopressin and insulin). Substances were administered with a nasal spray
atomizer, with each puff containing defined amounts of MSH/ACTH(4–10) (0.25 or 0.5 mg),
vasopressin (10 IU) or insulin (10 IU). Total doses were achieved by repeated puffs in each
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

nostril every 30–45 s. Bars, period of peptide administration (for higher dose). Peptide con-
centrations were determined by radioimmunoassay (RIA) (MSH/ACTH(4–10)11; vaso- b
pressin, Mitsubishi Petrochemicals, Tokyo, Japan; insulin, Pharmacia, Uppsala, Sweden). No
extraction procedure was used for CSF samples. Assay sensitivities were MSH/ACTH(4–10),
0.05 ng/ml; vasopressin, 0.2 pg/ml; insulin, 1.8 pmol/l. Cross-reactivity of the RIAs with natu-
rally occurring related molecules was negligible (<0.1% with MSH/ACTH(4–9) or
ACTH(1–24) for MSH/ACTH(4–10) RIA11; <0.04% with oxytocin, lysine–vasopressin or
C-terminal metabolites for vasopressin RIA; <0.2% with C-peptide and insulin-like growth
factor 1 and 2 for insulin RIA). RIAs were combined with reversed-phase high-performance
liquid chromatography, confirming for each peptide that >90% of the immunoreactivity
recovered in CSF represented the intact peptide. Means, s.e.m. and significance compared to
placebo concentration (**, P ≤ 0.01, *, P < 0.05, Mann-Whitney test, for baseline-adjusted
values) are shown. Experiments were approved by the Ethics Committee of the University of
Lübeck and informed consent was obtained from each participant.

Concurrent measurement of the concentrations in blood did not

reveal a significant increase in MSH/ACTH(4–10) or insulin fol-
lowing intranasal administration of these peptides. In addition, there concentrations of MSH/ACTH(4–10) and insulin in the CSF after
was no change in plasma glucose concentration after insulin admin- intranasal administration were not paralleled by any increase in the
istration (P > 0.12, for all comparisons). In contrast, the accumu- concentrations in the blood, and intranasal administration of insulin
lation of vasopressin in CSF was accompanied by a distinct increase did not change blood glucose concentration, it is likely that the pep-
in plasma vasopressin levels, in agreement with previous observa- tides entered the CSF directly, bypassing the bloodstream. In each
tions6. The average increase in CSF concentrations of vasopressin case, an undetectable amount of peptide may have also reached the
correlated slightly but non-significantly with that in blood (r = 0.55, circulation. However, MSH/ACTH(4–10) is rapidly degraded in
one-sided P < 0.10, across subjects and both doses). blood (half life <4 min11), and any insulin reaching the bloodstream
Our data validate in humans the idea that intranasal adminis- would be masked by the endogenous hormone. Notably, in mice,
tration allows peptides to penetrate into the CSF. These data cor- the concurrent systemic injection of insulin has been found not to
roborate previous human studies in which recordings of evoked reduce a strong brain uptake of intranasally administered 125I-
brain potentials provided functional evidence for a facilitated access labeled insulin9. Although these data support the hypothesis that
of neuropeptides to the brain after nasal delivery7,8. Animal studies intranasal peptide administration can result in uptake into the CSF
also have shown that peptides (insulin, nerve growth factor) and independent of entry into the blood, other studies12,13 in conjunc-
larger molecules (e.g., horseradish peroxidase, viruses) accumulate tion with our finding that intranasally administered vasopressin
in brain tissue after intranasal administration3,9,10. As the increased accumulated in plasma indicate that blood–brain transport may,
to a certain extent, add to CSF uptake following
Table 1. Accumulation of MSH/ACTH(4–10), vasopressin and insulin in CSF nasal delivery.
and blood serum. Two routes have been proposed for the
CSF Serum
direct passage of peptides from the nose to
Mean s.e.m. P Mean s.e.m. P the brain: an intraneuronal and an extra-
neuronal pathway 3,10,14 . Intraneuronal
MSH/ACTH(4–10) AUC (ng/ml) × min AUC (ng/ml) × min transport involves the internalization of the
Placebo 7.45 8.98 8.80 1.41 peptide into olfactory neurons, followed by
MSH/ACTH(4–10), 5 mg 21.53 7.11 0.30 10.91 0.26 0.48 axonal transport. However, this route pre-
MSH/ACTH(4–10), 10 mg 514.49 195.4 0.004 10.98 2.98 0.62 sents a greater risk of proteolysis (resulting
Vasopressin AUC (pg/ml) × min AUC (pg/ml) × min from lysosomal degradation) than does
Placebo 254.4 65.6 207.4 202.0 extraneuronal transport, and requires hours
for substances to reach the olfactory
Vasopressin, 40 IU 1,319.1 821.8 0.05 1,674.0 931.8 0.14
bulb3,14. It therefore seems more plausible
Vasopressin, 80 IU 2,481.9 732.4 0.009 3,749.8 348.6 0.009
that peptide molecules travel by the extra-
Insulin AUC (pmol/l) × min AUC (pmol/l) × min cellular route, passing through patent inter-
Placebo 603.2 34.6 3,410.5 106.1 cellular clefts in the olfactory epithelium to
Insulin, 40 IU 1,091.1 219.8 0.028 3,414.3 276.8 0.22 diffuse into the subarachnoid space3,14. AUC
calculations (Table 1) are suggestive of an
Concentrations of the peptides expressed as area under curve (AUC; using the trapezoid method)
within 80 min after intranasal administration. P < 0.05 indicates significance in comparison with
inverse relationship between accumulation
concentrations after placebo administration. Significance of accumulations was also confirmed in com- in the CSF and peptide molecular weight
parisons of average post-administration increases with pre-administration baseline concentrations. (MWs: MSH/ACTH(4–10), 962.1; vaso-

nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002 515

brief communications

pressin, 1,084.2; insulin, 5,808.0), although other factors, such ty of the intranasal route of peptide administration remains to
as lipophilicity and degree of ionization, probably also affect be proven in clinical trials.
peptide access to the brain3. A rapid accumulation of peptides
in cerebral and spinal CSF and in brain tissue (within 10–20 Acknowledgments
minutes of intranasal administration) has been seen in animals We thank A. Otterbein for technical assistance and W.M. Pardridge, University
and is also suggested by observations in patients3,7,9. Although of California at Los Angeles, Department of Medicine, and S. Gizurarson,
the extent of peptide uptake from CSF into human brain tissue University of Iceland, Faculty of Pharmacy, for comments on the manuscript.
is not known, animal studies have shown significant uptake This work was supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft.
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

even in more interior brain regions, such as the amygdala10.

Our data cannot be taken to establish that intranasal admin- Competing interests statement
istration results in greater CSF uptake of peptides than does intra- The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.
venous administration. We administered fairly large doses of
peptide, because with intranasal administration, substantial RECEIVED 15 JANUARY; ACCEPTED 20 MARCH 2002
amounts of a compound may simply pass through the nose with-
out being absorbed. In the case of insulin, for example, previous 1. Strand, F.L. Neuropeptides: Regulators of Physiological Process (MIT Press,
studies suggest that brain uptake from plasma is at least compa- Cambridge, 1999).
rable to that resulting from nasal delivery12,13. This conclusion 2. Pardridge, W.M. J. Neurovirol. 5, 556–569 (1999).
3. Illum, L. Eur. J. Pharm. Sci. 11, 1–18 (2000).
does not, however, detract from our finding that intranasal 4. DeWied, D., Van Wimersma Greidanus, T.J.B., Bohus, B., Urban, L. &
administration can deliver neuropeptides to the brain without Gispen, W.H. Prog. Brain Res. 45, 181–194 (1976).
5. Schwartz, M.W., Woods, S.C., Porte, D. Jr., Seeley, R.J. & Baskin, D.G. Nature
uptake into the circulation. The potential usefulness of nasal 404, 661–671 (2000).
administration derives from the fact that biologically effective 6. Riekkinen, P. et al. Peptides 8, 261–265 (1987).
concentrations of neuropeptides can be achieved in the human 7. Fehm, H.L., Perras, B., Smolnik, R., Kern, W. & Born, J. Eur. J. Pharmacol.
405, 43–54 (2000).
brain without strong systemic, hormone-like side effects. Such 8. Kern, W., Born, J., Schreiber, H. & Fehm, H.L. Diabetes 48, 557–563 (1999).
effects limit the systemic administration of peptide to amounts 9. Sigurdsson, P., Thorvaldsson, T., Gizurarson, S. & Gunnarsson, E. Drug Deliv.
too small to have substantial effects in the brain. Nasal delivery 4, 195–200 (1997).
10. Chen, X., Fawcett, J.R., Rahman, Y., Ala, T.A. & Frey, W.H. 2nd. J. Alzheimer´s
may be useful in the treatment of brain diseases, particularly those Dis. 1, 35–44 (1998).
involving dysfunction of neuropeptide signaling, such as 11. Bickel, U., Born, J., Fehm, H.L., Distler, M. & Voigt, K.H. Eur. J. Clin.
Alzheimer’s disease and obesity5,9,10. Although this theory has Pharmacol. 35, 371–377 (1988).
12. Wallum, B.J. et al. J. Clin. Endocrinol. Metab. 64, 190–194 (1987).
received support from human studies showing beneficial effects 13. Schwartz, M.W. et al. J. Clin. Invest. 88, 1272–1281 (1991).
on sleep and body fat mass after prolonged intranasal adminis- 14. Thorne, R.G., Emory, C.R., Ala, T.A. & Frey, W.H. 2nd. Brain Res. 692,
278–283 (1995).
tration of vasopressin and MSH/ACTH(4–10), respectively, it 15. Fehm, H.L., Smolnik, R., Kern, W. & Born, J. J. Clin. Endocrinol. Metab. 86,
remains to be proven in clinical trials7,15. Nevertheless, the utili- 1144–1148 (2001).

516 nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002


Thalamcortical optimization of tactile

processing according to behavioral
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

Miguel A. L. Nicolelis1,2,3,4 and Erika E. Fanselow1

We propose a conceptual model that describes the operation of the main thalamocortical loop of the rat
somatosensory system. According to this model, the asynchronous convergence of ascending and descending
projections dynamically alters the physiological properties of thalamic neurons in the ventral posterior medial
(VPM) nucleus as rats shift between three behavioral states. Two of these states are characterized by distinct
modes of rhythmic whisker movements. We posit that these simultaneous shifts in exploratory behavioral
strategy and in the physiological properties of VPM neurons allow rats to either (i) optimize the detection of
stimuli that are novel or difficult to sense or (ii) process complex patterns of multi-whisker stimulation.

The rat somatosensory system is widely tem. The central hypothesis of our model their way to VPM, corticothalamic pro-
recognized as a versatile and invaluable is that the thalamocortical loop dynami- jections also send branches to RT neurons.
experimental model in which to investi- cally adjusts its physiological mode of The RT consists exclusively of inhibitory
gate the principles of the development1, operation, at both cellular and circuit lev- neurons, which project either to the VPM
anatomical organization2, physiological els, in accordance with specific behaviors nucleus, where they terminate near the
properties 3–8, coding strategy 9–12 and used by rats to explore their environ- cell bodies and activate GABA (γ-
plastic potential13–15 of sensory systems ments. This way, the somatosensory sys- aminobutyric acid)A and GABAB recep-
in mammals. As a result, this system has tem can favor either the detection of tors, or locally within RT. As the rat VPM
been scrutinized by a variety of powerful minute, novel tactile stimuli or the nucleus does not contain intrinsic
techniques, such as in vivo and in vitro detailed analysis of stimulus attributes. inhibitory neurons (inhibitory interneu-
patch-clamp recording16,17, intra- and rons), RT neurons are therefore the only
extracellular recording18–20 and optical The thalamocortical circuit source of GABAergic inhibition in this
imaging14,21–24. More recently, chronic The circuit that defines the main thalamic relay nucleus30.
multisite, multi-electrode recordings in thalamocortical loop of the rat
freely behaving animals have been used somatosensory system is illustrated in Underlying cellular properties
to characterize, for the first time, the Figure 1. Ascending action potentials Like other thalamic neurons, rat VPM
simultaneous activity of distinct popula- resulting from mechanical stimulation of neurons have two modes of firing: tonic
tions of neurons that define the main the whiskers travel to the trigeminal mode, in which cells fire single action
thalamocortical circuit of the rat brainstem complex (TBC) and the brain- potentials, and bursting mode, in which
somatosensory system25. This new exper- stem reticular formation (RF) (Fig. 1a). cells fire in rhythmic bursts of 2–10 action
imental approach provides a unique Projections from the TBC then terminate potentials at ∼300–500 Hz. These two
opportunity to correlate the physiologi- on neurons in the VPM nucleus. In the rat modes, which have been described by a
cal properties of thalamocortical neural thalamus, the VPM nucleus contains only number of investigators throughout the
ensembles with the main behaviors rats one type of neuron: excitatory cells that last several decades31–37, alternate accord-
use to extract tactile information from project mainly to layer 4 (CTX IV) of the ing to the animal’s behavioral state (for
their surrounding environment. primary somatosensory cortex (SI). On review, see ref. 38). Traditionally it has
Here, by combining recent physiolog- the way to the cortex, the axons of VPM been thought that thalamic bursts occur
ical and behavioral findings from multi- also send a projection to the thalamic only during states such as slow-wave sleep,
electrode recording studies with data reticular nucleus (RT). VPM and RT neu- anesthesia and seizure activity35,39–41 and
describing the main cellular properties of rons also receive dense ascending cholin- that tonic firing is associated solely with
thalamic neurons, we propose a multilevel ergic projections from the RF 26. These waking states34,42–44. Recently, however,
model of operation for the main thalamo- projections can excite VPM cells through several laboratories have shown that thal-
cortical loop of the rat somatosensory sys- nicotinic and M1-type muscarinic recep- amic bursts can occur during waking
tors27,28, but inhibit RT cells through M2- states45–52, although such bursting is more
1 Department of Neurobiology, 2 Department of type receptors29. prevalent during slow-wave sleep.
Descending projections in the Several authors have posited that sen-
Biomedical Engineering, 3 Department of
Psychological and Brain Sciences and 4 Duke
thalamocortical loop originate primarily sory information is transmitted from the
Center for Neuroengineering, Duke University
in layer 6 of SI cortex (CTX VI) (Fig. 1b). thalamus to the cortex only during the
Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina The distal dendrites of VPM neurons are tonic firing mode, and that no informa-
27710, USA densely innervated by these projections, tion is transmitted during the bursting
Correspondence should be addressed to which activate both ionotropic and mode30,35,39,40,53. This idea has recently
M.A.L.N. ( metabotropic glutamate receptors. On been challenged by experiments showing

nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002


Fig. 1. Schematic diagram of the main rat

a b thalamocortical loop. (a) The main ascending
pathways; (b) the main descending pathways.
Abbreviations as in text.

A shift from bursting mode to tonic

mode requires that cells be depolarized
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

for 50–100 ms so that I T will be suffi-

ciently inactivated. This means that the
fast postsynaptic potentials, such as those
generated in VPM by ascending trigemi-
no-thalamic pathways, are not likely to
cause a shift from the burst to tonic fir-
ing mode. Application of the neuromod-
ulator acetylcholine (ACh), by contrast,
has been shown to depolarize thalamic
projection neurons in vitro61,62 and is suf-
ficient to cause these cells to switch from
a bursting to a tonic mode of firing. In
addition, stimulation of the brainstem RF,
which supplies cholinergic innervation to
the thalamus, depolarizes thalamic pro-
jection cells for up to several seconds63.
Given that activity in RF substantially
increases during states of arousal (for a
review, see ref. 53), these projections
that neurons in the lateral geniculate inactivated. However, the inactivation could contribute to the shift from burst
nucleus (LGN) can transmit visual infor- can be removed—that is, IT can be de- to tonic mode as animals wake up or shift
mation during both modes of firing, inactivated—if the neuron becomes suf- from one behavioral state to another.
although the nature of the transmitted sig- ficiently hyperpolarized (to around –70
nal differs between the modes46,49. Dur- mV) for at least 50–100 ms. When IT is Linking physiology and behavior
ing bursting, thalamic neurons are ideally de-inactivated, it is then ready to be acti- Our model includes three natural behav-
tuned to detect fast changes in incoming vated by a sufficient depolarization, such ioral states often seen in rats. We refer to
sensory signals (similar to a high-pass fil- as one caused by an incoming stimulus the first of these as ‘quiet’ behavior, in
ter) and to pass this information on to the and leading to a Ca2+ spike. In this way, which rats are standing or sitting still and
cortex37,54,55. In contrast, during tonic fir- the inactivation state of IT is defined by their whiskers are not moving25,64. The
ing, VPM neurons can produce a more a complex function of time and mem- second is known as ‘whisker twitching’
detailed representation of a stimulus. brane voltage. behavior, during which rats are also
The tonic and bursting modes of thal-
amic firing emerge as the interplay of a b
variety of voltage-gated membrane con-
ductances (Fig. 2a). Depending on how
these conductances are selectively acti-
vated by the different inputs (from the
trigemino-thalamic, corticothalamic and
ascending neuromodulatory pathways)
that converge on thalamic neurons, VPM a
neurons can respond with either tonic or
bursting activity. A critical factor in spec-
ifying the firing mode is the activation
state of a voltage-gated Ca 2+ conduc-
tance, which involves T-type Ca2+ chan-
nels 36,54–60 . When these channels are
activated, Ca2+ flows into the cell, creat-
ing a current known as I T, which pro-
duces a slow, long-duration, nearly
all-or-none depolarization known as the
low-threshold Ca 2+ spike. The T-type Fig. 2. Burst activity in VPM cells and period of hyper-sensitivity after a burst. (a) The firing mode
of a VPM cell can shift from tonic to bursting, depending on the membrane potential and activa-
Ca2+ channels have voltage-dependent
tion state of the IT current. (b) A hyper-sensitive period (∼30 ms before the onset of whisker
characteristics that determine when IT is movement; black arrow at top) precedes a burst, and this increases the probability of a response
activated. When a thalamic neuron is rel- to a peripheral stimulus. The solid line shows the probability, at different times before the stimu-
atively depolarized (>60–65 mV), IT is lus, that a thalamic neuron will respond to a stimulus when it occurs.

518 nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002


Fig. 3. Neural activity in VPM thalamus

during three behavioral states. (a) A con- a
tinuous 50 s trace of the first principal
component of neural ensemble activity in
VPM during quiet, whisker twitching and
whisking behaviors. (b) Responses of sin-
gle VPM neurons to the presentation of
two infra-orbital electrical nerve stimuli25
with an interstimulus interval of 50 ms b
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

(bold dotted lines, stimulus presentation;

horizontal dotted lines, baseline firing
level). (c) Average peristimulus time his-
tograms (PSTHs) of neural activity in
VPM neurons before and after one stimu-
lation of the infra-orbital nerve (note that
the peaks of the responses to the stimu-
lus have been truncated so the lower-
magnitude activity can easily be seen; bold
dotted lines, stimulus presentation; hori-
zontal dotted lines, baseline firing level).
(d) Rasters showing the activity of four d
single units in VPM during each behavior.
Bursting activity is indicated by asterisks.
(e) Amount of partial directed coherence
observed during each of the three behav-
iors. The top panel is for partial directed
coherence from SI to VPM, the bottom e
panel from VPM to SI. Yellow indicates
the highest intensity of the coherence,
green and blue respectively less, and
white indicates none. (f) Cumulative sum
of cortical area activated by a single infra-
orbital nerve stimulus. Values are normal- f
ized to the maximum activated area in the
quiet state.

standing or sitting still but twitch

their whiskers in very rhythmic,
small-amplitude movements at a
rate of 7–12 Hz65,66. The third behavior, twitching and the concurrent oscillato- VPM neurons, which help to define the
referred to as ‘whisking’, occurs when rats ry activity in SI and VPM can last for receptive fields and multi-whisker respons-
move their whiskers back and forth in several seconds, and then terminates es of these thalamic neurons75,76.
large-amplitude sweeps at a rate of spontaneously. Throughout these The tactile responses of both SI and
∼4–6 Hz. Rats use these whisking move- episodes of 7–12 Hz oscillations, rats VPM neurons vary markedly in several
ments to repeatedly put their whiskers in remain extremely responsive to mechan- ways as a rat shifts between these three
contact with surfaces or objects, gather- ical stimulation of their whiskers. This behavioral states (Fig. 3a and b). First,
ing tactile information as they actively and other findings (see below) indicate when a single tactile stimulus (such as a
explore their environments67. that these thalamocortical oscillations brief deflection of a whisker) is present-
During the quiet and whisking resemble a normal, non-pathological ed, the probability of a neuronal response
behaviors, there is no large-scale, coher- oscillatory state sometimes referred to as is largest during the quiet behavior, small-
ent neural activity among the cells in the µ-rhythm 69 , which has been er during whisking and lowest during
either VPM or SI, and the activity is thus observed in other species70–73. whisker twitching (Fig. 3b). Second, after
referred to as ‘desynchronized’. In con- Notably, when these 7–12 Hz thalam- stimulation during the quiet mode, there
trast, the whisker twitching state is ocortical oscillations and the accompany- is a robust inhibitory period lasting
accompanied by a highly synchronous ing whisker twitching movements are ∼75 ms. This post-stimulus inhibitory
7–12 Hz oscillatory neural activity65,66 blocked by permanent SI cortical lesions68 period is shorter during whisker twitch-
(Fig. 3a), which appears first in the rat or by pharmacological inactivation of SI52, ing, and substantially shorter during
SI cortex and later in the VPM thala- the whisking movements remain. This sug- whisking, relative to that during the quiet
mus52,64. Shortly after the onset of this gests that the cortex does not exert strict behavior (Fig. 3c). Finally, when pairs of
oscillatory neural activity in the thalam- control of the cycle-by-cycle generation of stimuli are presented, the ability of a neu-
ocortical loop, rats start producing the whisking movements74, but rather modu- ron to fire in response to the second stim-
rhythmic, small amplitude whisker lates the activity of subcortical circuits that ulus in the pair is dependent on the
twitching movements characteristic of in turn drive the whisker-moving motor inter-stimulus interval and the animal’s
this behavior, which are phase-locked to neurons. It is important to emphasize that behavioral state. During the quiet and
the neural oscillations 66,68 . Whisker the SI cortex exerts other influences on whisker twitching states, if the inter-stim-

nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002 519


a is likely to be de-inactivated. For this

window of enhanced sensitivity to be
useful, it needs to occur during a period
when the whiskers are likely to be
mechanically stimulated. Indeed, in the
rat VPM the highest probability of burst-
ing activity occurs ∼30 ms after the onset
of whisker twitching protractions 64
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

(Fig. 2b, arrow). The highest probabili-

ty of a VPM response occurs when the
b stimulus is preceded by a burst occurring
∼120 ms before the stimulation (Fig. 2,
red box), and the period when IT is de-
inactivated begins at roughly the onset
of whisker protraction (Fig. 2). This
means that VPM neurons are most sen-
sitive to incoming stimulation at the
time when the whiskers begin to move
c forward and when these neurons are
capable of bursting. In this scheme, the
occurrence of each VPM burst ‘resets’
the activation state of IT so that the peri-
od when IT is inactivated occurs during
the retraction phase of the whisker
twitching movements. Thus, as I T
becomes de-inactivated again at the
beginning of the next whisker twitching
Fig. 4. Schematic diagram of neuronal firing in VPM neurons during (a) quiet (b) whisker twitch- protraction, the animal is again ready to
ing and (c) whisking behaviors. In each panel, the horizontal colored bars indicate approximate fir- respond to an incoming stimulus.
ing intensity in each of the brain regions considered in our model. Below these in each panel is a Further analysis52,77–79 revealed that
schematic drawing of the firing patterns in response to a single stimulus to the infra-orbital nerve signals directed from SI to VPM are sig-
(see Fig. 3c). Arrow (top), stimulus presentation. Stimulus peaks truncated in (a) and (c). nificantly more coherent during whisker
twitching episodes than during the other
two behavioral states (Fig. 3e). In addi-
tion, inactivation of the SI cortex by local
ulus interval is less than 75 ms, the prob- tion, in awake monkeys the percentage of infusion of the GABAA agonist muscimol
ability that VPM and SI neurons will spikes involved in bursts is 1.6% in the abolished whisker twitching movements,
respond to the second stimulus in a pair LGN and 29.5% in the somatosensory 7–12 Hz oscillations and bursting activi-
is very small (Fig. 3b). During whisking, thalamus 51 . The percentage of spikes ty in the VPM. These results indicate that,
though, the probability of a response to involved in bursts in the VPM thalamus during whisker twitching, the SI cortex
the second stimulus of a pair is only during each of the three rat behaviors is exerts a powerful rhythmic influence on
reduced if the inter-stimulus interval is 11.34% for quiet; 29.9% for whisker VPM neurons and that these descending
25 ms or less. Thus, the ability of VPM twitching and 4.4% for whisking. Notably, cortical signals are required for the emer-
and SI neurons to respond reliably to during the whisker twitching behavior, gence of 7–12 Hz oscillations and associ-
rapidly repeated stimuli is correlated with each neuron does not fire bursts on every ated VPM bursting activity, as well as for
the duration of the post-stimulus oscillation cycle. Thus, during a given the whisker twitching behavior itself.
inhibitory period, which differs accord- episode of whisker twitching, a neuron Although these VPM bursts may result
ing to behavioral state. may fire a burst on some of the oscilla- from the same cellular properties and cir-
Recently, a more detailed analysis of tion cycles and produce just a single cuits that are responsible for sleep-
the firing properties of thalamocortical action potential or not fire at all on other related oscillatory activity (also known as
cells52 in behaving rats has shown that cycles. This means that the amount of sleep spindles) and pathological states
during the 7–12 Hz oscillations observed neuronal bursting varies over a wide such as epilepsy, it should be noted that
in the whisker twitching behavior, VPM dynamic range. More specifically, the the nature of the oscillatory activity that
and SI neurons fire bursts of action poten- amount of thalamic bursting can be grad- these VPM bursts underlie and the behav-
tials much more frequently (average of ed according to the magnitude of the ioral condition during which they occur
once every 7.2 s) than during the quiet afferent stimulus. (whisker twitching) are both distinct from
(average of once every 45.5 s) or whisking During whisker twitching, VPM neu- those observed during sleep or seizure
(average of once every 28.6 s) behaviors rons show a period directly preceding a activity73. First, during whisker twitching,
(Fig. 3d). For comparison, it was shown burst when the probability of a response SI neuronal firing precedes the oscillato-
in the LGN of rats that the average num- to a tactile stimulus is significantly ry activity observed in the VPM thala-
ber of bursts per second during waking enhanced, and is higher than during any mus 32 and the 7–12 Hz oscillations
states is 0.06, although this varied accord- other behavioral states we studied52. This disappear when the cortex is removed66
ing to the size of the stimulus45. In addi- period occurs during the time when IT or inactivated 52. In contrast, the sleep

520 nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002


spindles that occur after removal of the signals, but allows them to respond profiles of thalamocortical tactile respons-
cortex80,81 are characterized by less coher- robustly to the presence of a single, iso- es to a single stimulus contain elements of
ent oscillations82. Second, cortical and lated stimulus (Fig. 4a). This could be the responses observed during both the
thalamic cells do not fire on every cycle thought of as a stimulus detection state, quiet state and whisking. For example, the
during the 7–12 Hz oscillations 52,64 as specialized for indicating the presence of amount of cortical area in SI that is acti-
they do during seizure activity, suggesting a transient tactile stimulus. vated by a tactile stimulus is similar dur-
that the oscillation-related bursts are not Whisker twitching, a more sensitive ing the whisker twitching and whisking
as intense as seizure-related bursts. Fur- stimulus detection mode, could occur states, but these are both smaller than that
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

ther, sleep spindles are characterized by when there is a low level of tactile input during the quiet state (Fig. 3f). Therefore,
periods of 7–12 Hz oscillations which from the periphery. This reduction in it is conceivable that during the whisker
have an average duration of 1.5–2 s and depolarizing drive reaching the VPM thal- twitching state, some partial integration
recur at a frequency of 0.1–0.2 Hz (ref. amus through the trigemino-thalamic of multi-whisker information could be
38). In contrast, the 7–12 Hz oscillations pathway, combined with the existence of achieved by the animal, in addition to
that occur during whisker twitching last a cortically driven inhibitory influence pure stimulus detection. This would sup-
from several seconds to more than a from RT to VPM, would produce a net port the contention that oscillations in the
minute and do not typically wax and inhibitory input to VPM neurons. As a thalamocortical loop serve as a ‘rate-
wane 64,65 . Finally, during the whisker consequence, these neurons would tend controlled oscillator’ that detect small
twitching behavior, rats are never uncon- to move to a more hyperpolarized state changes in afferent input9,85.
scious (as happens during both sleep and (around –70 mV; Fig. 2a), causing some Once the whiskers are deflected by a
multiple forms of seizures): they can read- degree of IT de-inactivation. At this point, novel stimulus, a series of concurrent cel-
ily detect tactile stimuli and quickly switch rhythmic 7–12 Hz oscillations would lular, circuit and behavioral events would
into a different behavioral state (quiet or appear in the SI cortex and would be read- allow the rat thalamocortical loop to
whisking). These are all hallmarks of nor- ily transmitted to the VPM thalamus dynamically shift its processing mode for
mal physiological cortical activity. (Fig. 4b) via corticothalamic projections. acquisition of complex, rapidly presented
Rhythmic activation of these corticothal- stimuli, such as might occur while large
A conceptual model amic projections would produce amplitude whisker movements are made
Our model integrates three levels of sequences of fast disynaptic inhibition, across a surface or object. This series of
analysis: (i) the cellular properties of through the RT nucleus, and delayed whisking-related events would occur as
thalamic neurons, (ii) the distinct extra- monosynaptic depolarization of VPM follows (Fig. 4c): first, whisker stimulation
cellular physiological properties of neurons through activation of ionotrop- sends an ascending excitatory volley to the
ensembles of thalamocortical neurons ic and metabotropic glutamate receptors VPM thalamus (via the trigemino-
observed in awake, freely behaving ani- by corticothalamic projections. This thalamic pathways). The signals are then
mals and (iii) the behavioral strategies sequence of rhythmic synaptic influences detected by VPM neurons and transmit-
(for example, different types of whisker would first supply the hyperpolarization ted to the SI cortex, in part as bursts. The
movements) used by rats during differ- needed to fully de-inactivate IT in VPM excitatory signal from the periphery also
ent behavioral situations. neurons, and then provide the depolar- activates the brainstem RF, which sends
According to this model (Fig. 4), the ization required for these neurons to pro- cholinergic input to the thalamus. This
first mode of processing corresponds to duce a Ca2+ spike with bursts of action cholinergic input depolarizes VPM neu-
the quiet state (Fig. 4a), during which potentials riding on it (Fig 2a). This rons but inhibits RT cells, leading to an
VPM neurons are relatively depolarized mechanism has been proposed for the overall reduction in GABAergic inhibition
(to about –55 mV) and thus in the tonic generation of oscillatory activity in the cat in VPM, as has been suggested else-
firing mode (Fig. 2a). This depolariza- thalamus 84 . Further support for this where 84,86 . Finally, further excitatory
tion could be due to ascending neuro- hypothesis comes from our finding that inputs to the cortex (via the basal forebrain
modulatory input and/or descending 7–12 Hz oscillations do not appear in nuclei and the intralaminar thalamic
excitatory input from the cortex83, both VPM if the SI cortex is inactivated52, indi- nuclei) depolarize cortical neurons and
of which are known to cause thalamo- cating that these oscillations may be interrupt the 7–12 Hz oscillations. The
cortical cells to change from bursting to dependent on descending cortical input. combination of these events (VPM depo-
tonic mode. During the quiet behavior, As the oscillatory thalamic bursting larization, reduction in RT-mediated inhi-
VPM neurons respond to tactile stimuli activity provides periods of hypersensi- bition and elimination of 7–12 Hz
with a stereotyped sequence of excita- tivity to stimulation of the whiskers just oscillations) would allow VPM neurons to
tion and inhibition (Fig. 4a). This phasic before the burst onset (Fig. 2, red box), remain sufficiently depolarized to prevent
sequence probably results from a strong we propose that rats are primed during de-inactivation of IT, and hence switch
depolarization by ascending excitatory these periods to detect minute or slowly from a bursting to a tonic mode of firing.
trigemino-thalamic projections that is changing deflections of the whiskers bet- By remaining in tonic mode, VPM
followed by both short- (GABA A - ter than during the quiet behavior when neurons would be able to respond more
mediated) and long-lasting (GABA B - neither 7–12 Hz oscillations nor VPM rapidly and accurately to the multi-
mediated) inhibition from RT projec- bursting are present. Although this hyper- whisker stimuli that would likely be expe-
tions to the VPM nucleus. These RT sensitive period is short, we propose that it rienced as the whiskers move over objects
neurons are activated by collaterals of still provides an advantage because the and surfaces during the whisking behav-
both thalamocortical and corticothala- level of sensitivity during this period is ior. Though sensitivity to a single stimulus
mic projections (Fig. 1). This response substantially higher than during any other may not be as great during the whisking
pattern renders VPM neurons incapable behavioral states we studied. In addition, state relative to other states, the ability of
of following fast sequences of incoming during whisker twitching movements, the VPM and SI neurons to respond accu-

nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002 521


rately to rapidly repeated whisker deflec- RECEIVED 28 NOVEMBER 2001; 17. Petersen, C. C. & Sakmann, B. The excitatory
tions is much greater. Thus, as rats use ACCEPTED 29 MARCH 2002 neuronal network of rat layer 4 barrel cortex.
J. Neurosci. 20, 7579–7586 (2000).
whisking movements to explore an object,
VPM neurons firing in tonic mode would 18. Nicolelis, M. A. L. et al. Reconstructing the
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generated during this behavior. Therefore, structural organization of layer IV in the pyramidal neurons. Cereb. Cortex 7, 523–533
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

the key purpose of whisking movements somatosensory region (SI) of mouse cerebral (1997).
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This work was supported by National Institute of plasticity in somatosensory and motor areas transmission and excitability of both
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United States/Israel Bi-national Science Foundation basal complex of the thalamus: types of cells,
patterns and whisker-evoked synaptic
award to M.A.L.N. and a predoctoral NRSA grant responses of neurons in the rat barrel cortex. their responses and their functional
(MH-12316-01A1) to E.E.F. J. Neurophysiol. 81, 1171–1183 (1999). organization. J. Physiol. 174, 370–399 (1964).

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Thalamcortical optimization of tactile processing according to behavioral state

Miguel A.L. Nicolelis & Erika E. Fanselow
Nat. Neurosci. 5, 517–523 (2002)

The title of this article contained a typographical error. It should have read:

Thalamocortical optimization of tactile processing according to behavioral state

nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 7 • july 2002 1


Progressive induction of caudal

neural character by graded Wnt
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

Ulrika Nordström1, Thomas M. Jessell2 and Thomas Edlund1

1 Department of Molecular Biology, Umeå University, S-901 87 Umeå, Sweden

2 Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics, Columbia University, New York, New York 10032, USA

Correspondence should be addressed to T.E. (

Published online: 13 May 2002, DOI: 10.1038/nn854

Early in differentiation, all neural cells have a rostral character. Only later do posteriorly
positioned neural cells acquire characteristics of caudal forebrain, midbrain and hindbrain cells.
Caudalization of neural tissue in the chick embryo apparently involves the convergent actions of
(i) fibroblast growth factor (FGF) signaling and (ii) signaling from the caudal paraxial mesoderm,
or ‘PMC activity’, which has not yet been defined molecularly. Here we report evidence that Wnt
signaling underlies PMC activity, and show that Wnt signals act directly and in a graded manner
on anterior neural cells to induce their progressive differentiation into caudal forebrain, midbrain
and hindbrain cells.

The early development of the vertebrate nervous system is accom- onic body plan (
panied by the specification of regionally restricted progenitor dow.html). The multiple patterning roles of Wnts at early devel-
cells along the rostrocaudal axis of the neural tube1,2. Studies in opmental stages has made it difficult to determine whether the
various vertebrates have indicated that cells of caudal neural char- later Wnt signals implicated in rostrocaudal neural patterning
acter are generated through the reprogramming of cells with an act directly or indirectly7,13,18–21,24.
initial rostral character2–4. In chick embryos, this happens during In chick embryos, prospective neural tissue can be separated
late gastrulation4,5. The induction of cells of midbrain and rostral from the adjacent mesoderm at stages when neural cells normal-
hindbrain character requires FGF signaling4,6,7. Retinoic acid ly acquire caudal regional characters. This way, the rostrocaudal
(RA) signaling, derived from the paraxial mesoderm that flanks specification of neural cells and their direct responses to putative
the caudal region of the neural plate, suppresses the generation of patterning signals may be examined. Our findings show that Wnt
cells of midbrain and rostral hindbrain character while inducing signaling is required for the specification of cells of caudal neur-
caudal hindbrain and spinal cord character4,8–10. However, FGF al character both in neural plate explants and in chick embryos
and RA signaling are not sufficient (alone or together) to induce grown in New culture. Through in vitro studies and New culture
these caudal characters in neural cells grown in vitro. This process assays, we found that this caudalizing action of Wnts results from
requires an additional paraxial mesoderm caudalizing signal11–13 a direct action on neural cells. Graded Wnt signaling, in combi-
that has been termed PMC activity4,5. The molecular basis of nation with FGFs, specifies cells of caudal forebrain, midbrain
PMC signaling is not known. and rostral hindbrain character. In the absence of Wnt signaling,
Genes of the Wnt family are expressed in the posterior region caudal neural cells grown in vitro revert to a rostral forebrain
of vertebrate embryos during stages of gastrulation when caudal character. Thus we conclude that Wnt signals mediate the PMC
neural cells are generated14–16, and several lines of evidence have activity necessary for the establishment of caudal neural fates.
implicated Wnt signaling in the specification of caudal neural
character7,13,17–27. Indeed, Wnt signaling is required at several RESULTS
different stages, and in several different germ layers, during the Regional expression of Wnts in chick gastrula
early development of vertebrate embryos. During gastrulation, Paraxial mesodermal tissue that underlies the prospective cau-
for example, Wnt signaling is needed to generate caudal non- dal neural plate of Hamburger and Hamilton (HH) stage 4 and 5
axial mesoderm21,28–30: the inactivation of Wnt genes that are chick embryos can induce cells of midbrain and hindbrain char-
expressed at gastrula stages in mouse and zebrafish embryos leads acter at gastrula stages4,5. In considering candidate mediators of
to defects in trunk and tail structures28,29,31. At an even earlier PMC activity, we noted that Wnt8c (ref. 14) and Wnt11 (ref. 32)
stage, Wnt signaling also helps to establish the anteroposterior are expressed in the posterior region of the chick embryo at a
body axis and to initiate gastrulation21,22. Consistent with these time when neural cells are exposed to factors that direct their
findings, mis-expression of Wnts or downstream components of caudal neural character4. Using in situ hybridization, we found
the Wnt signaling pathway before the onset of gastrulation leads that, beginning in early stage 4, Wnt8c is expressed transiently,
to axis duplications and/or other malformations of the embry- and Wnt11 at increasing levels, in the caudal paraxial mesoderm

nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002 525


Fig. 1. Wnt11 and Wnt8c expression in the posterior region of the

chick embryo at developmental stages when neural cell precursors are
exposed to signals that induce caudal neural characters. Expression of
Wnt11 and Wnt8c in HH stage 4 and 5 embryos was monitored by
whole-mount (a, b) and section (c–f) in situ hybridization. (a, b) Black
arrow, Hensen’s node; black line, level of sections in c and d, respec-
tively. (a–d) Wnt11 was expressed in paraxial mesoderm posterior to
Hensen’s node. (e) Wnt8c was expressed in the primitive streak and
transiently in the mesoderm at early stage 4. (f) At early stage 5, Wnt8c
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

expression was found in lateral plate mesoderm and in the prospective

caudal neural plate. Scale bars, 0.5 mm.

assayed by monitoring the profile of expression of cell-specific

transcription factors. The expression of Sox2 and Sox3 (Sox2/3)
was used to define neural cells, regardless of their rostrocaudal
position33. Otx2 is expressed in the rostral neural tube with a
caudal limit at the isthmus34, and its expression in the absence
of Pax6, En1, Krox20 or Gbx2 was used as an indicator of neur-
al cells characteristic of rostral forebrain (RFB) levels (prospec-
tive telencephalon)35 (Fig. 2c). Co-expression of Otx2 and Pax6
in the absence of En1, Krox20 or Gbx2 was used to define cells
that underlies the prospective caudal neural plate (Fig. 1a–f). in the caudal forebrain (CFB) (prospective diencephalon)35,36
Thus, the combined patterns of expression of Wnt8c and Wnt11 (Fig. 2c). Co-expression of Otx2 and En1 was used to define
in the caudal paraxial mesoderm mimic the known distribution cells of midbrain (MB) character 37 (Fig. 2c). In 12 somite
of tissues that possess PMC activity5. In addition, from late stage embryos, Gbx2 (ref. 38) was expressed in rhombomeres (r) 1–4,
4 onwards, caudal neural plate cells themselves transiently and Krox20 (ref. 39) was co-expressed with Pax6 in r3 of the
expressed Wnt8c (Fig. 1f and ref. 14). hindbrain (data not shown). Thus, expression of Gbx2 and the
co-expression of Krox20 and Pax6 defined cells of rostral hind-
Wnt3A induces Wnt expression brain (RHB) character (Fig. 2c), whereas expression of Krox20
As both Wnt8c and Wnt11 were expressed in the caudal paraxial in the absence of Pax6 and Gbx2 defined cells of caudal hind-
mesoderm underlying prospective caudal neural plate (Fig. 1a–e), brain (r5-like) character.
and Wnt8c was expressed in prospective caudal neural plate cells Stage 4 and 5 caudal paraxial mesoderm tissue was cultured
(Fig. 1f), we reasoned that Wnt signals derived from the paraxi- together with stage 3 prospective caudal (stage 3C) neural plate
al mesoderm may induce Wnt expression in neural cells. To test explants (Fig. 3a,c and f) in the absence or presence of a soluble
this idea, we examined whether Wnt signaling induces Wnt8c fragment of the mouse Frizzled receptor 8 protein (mFrz8CRD-
expression in neural explants. We included FGF8 in these assays IgG), a selective antagonist of Wnt signals40,41. Stage 3C explants
because FGF signaling is required for caudalization of stage 4 grown alone generated Sox2/3+ and Otx2+ neural cells, a molec-
forebrain cells by paraxial mesoderm4. Wnt3A and FGF8 in com- ular profile characteristic of the rostral forebrain4. Similarly, in
bination, but not Wnt3A or FGF8 alone, induced the expression the presence of mFrz8CRD-IgG, stage 3C explants generated
of Wnt8c in stage 4 rostral forebrain (RFB) cells (Fig. 2b). This Sox2/3+ and Otx2+ cells, indicative of their maintained rostral
result supports the view that Wnts derived from the primitive forebrain character (Fig. 3b). Early stage 4 caudal paraxial meso-
streak and caudal paraxial mesoderm are involved in inducing derm induced Otx2+/En1+ cells of midbrain character in stage
the expression of Wnt8c in neural plate cells.

Wnt signaling specifies caudal neural character

a b
We next examined whether Wnt signaling participates in the
induction of midbrain and hindbrain character by caudal parax-
ial mesoderm. The positional character of neural cells was

Fig. 2. Wnt3A and FGF8 in combination induces the expression of

Wnt8c in prospective rostral forebrain cells. (a) Schematic drawing of a
late gastrula, HH stage 4, chick embryo. Dotted line, presumptive neural
plate; boxed region, explant of the prospective neural plate used for
in vitro cultivation and RT-PCR. (b) RT-PCR expression analysis of Wnt8c c
and the ribosome protein gene S17 in stage 4 RFB explants exposed to
FGF8 (10 ng/ml), Wnt3A (3×, 75 µl of Wnt3A conditioned medium per
ml of culture medium, ∼75 ng/ml) or a combination of Wnt3A (3×) and
FGF8 (10 ng/ml). (c) Schematic representation of the regional neural
markers used in this study. In a 12 somite stage chick embryo, cells in the
rostral forebrain (RFB, red) expressed Otx2; cells in the caudal forebrain
(CFB, yellow) co-expressed Otx and Pax6; cells in the midbrain (MB,
green) co-expressed En1 and Otx2. Gbx2 was widely expressed in the
rostral hindbrain (RHB, blue) and was co-expressed with Krox20 and
Pax6 in cells in rhombomere 3 (dark blue).

526 nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002


Fig. 3. The induction of midbrain and a

hindbrain cells by caudal paraxial meso- b
derm requires Wnt signaling. (a, c, f)
Schematic drawings of HH stages 3, 4 and
5 embryos, respectively. (b, d, e, g, h)
Quail mesoderm was identified by expres-
sion of QCPN, and chick neural tissue by c d
expression of Sox2/3 (95 ± 5% cells/sec-
tion). (a) Dashed line, presumptive neural
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

plate; red box, prospective stage 3C

neural plate tissue used for in vitro explant
studies. (b) Stage 3C explants (n = 14) cul- e
tured for 24 h in the presence of
mFrz8CRD-IgG expressed Sox2/3 (95 ±
5% cells/section, n = 5 sections; mean ±
s.e.m.) and Otx2 (97 ± 3% cells/section, n g
= 8 sections) but not Pax6, En1, Gbx2 or
Krox20. (c, f) Caudal paraxial mesoderm
explants used in recombination experi-
ments are marked by gray boxes.
(d) Chick stage 3C explants recombined
with early HH stage 4 quail mesoderm
(n = 12) generated Otx2 /En1 cells (80 ±
+ +

20% cells/section, n = 10 sections) and a

few Gbx2+ cells (15 ± 10% cells/section, n
= 10 sections) and Otx2+/Pax6+cells (10 ±
10% cells/section, n = 8 sections), but no
Krox20+ cells. (e) Stage 3C explants recombined with early HH stage 4 mesoderm cultivated in mFrz8CRD-IgG conditioned medium (120 µl/ml cul-
ture medium; n = 14) generated Otx2+ cells (97 ± 2% cells/section, n = 9 sections) but no Pax6+, En1+, Gbx2+ or Krox20+ cells. (g) Stage 3C explants
recombined with HH stage 5 mesoderm (n = 12) generated only a few Otx2+/En1+ cells (10 ± 10% cells/section, n = 10 sections) and Otx2+/Pax6+cells
(5 ± 5%, n = 5 sections) but generated Gbx2+ cells (80 ± 20%, n = 8 sections) and Krox20+/Pax6+cells (60 ± 35%, n = 10 sections). (h) Stage 3C
explants recombined with stage 5 mesoderm in the presence of mFrz8CRD-IgG (120 µl/ml; n = 9) generated Otx2+ cells (95 ± 5% cells/section, n = 12
sections) and Pax6+ cells (50 ± 40% cells/section, n = 12 sections) but no En1+, Gbx2+ or Krox20+ cells. Scale bar, 100 µm.

3C explants (Fig. 3d). Exposing these conjugates to mFrz8CRD- signaling is required for PMC activity to induce cells of caudal
IgG blocked the generation of En1+ cells but not that of Otx2+ regional neural character.
cells (Fig. 3e). Stage 5 paraxial mesoderm induced Krox20+,
Gbx2+ and Pax6+ cells in stage 3C explants, a marker profile Direct caudalizing action of Wnts
indicative of rostral hindbrain character (Fig. 3g). Exposing these We next addressed whether the induction of caudal neural char-
conjugates to mFrz8CRD-IgG blocked the generation of Krox20+ acter requires Wnt action on neural cells themselves. By stage 4,
and Gbx2+cells but not that of Otx2+ cells (Fig. 3h). Thus, Wnt tissue isolated from different regions along the rostrocaudal axis

Fig. 4. Ongoing Wnt signaling in neural plate cells is required for the acquisition of caudal forebrain but not rostral forebrain character.
(a) Schematic drawing of an HH stage 4 chick embryo. Dotted line, presumptive neural plate. Boxed regions, explants of the prospective neural plate
used for in vitro studies: prospective rostral forebrain (RFB, red) and prospective caudal forebrain (CFB, yellow). (b–e) Sox2/3 was used as a general
neural marker (95 ± 5% cells/section).
(b) RFB explants cultured alone for 24 h
a (n = 12) generated Otx2+cells (95 ± 5%,
b cells/section, n = 8 sections) but did not
generate Pax6-, En1-, Gbx2- or Krox20-
expressing cells. (c) RFB explants cul-
tured in mFrz8CRD-IgG conditioned
medium (100 µl/ml culture medium;
c n = 16) generated Otx2+cells (95 ± 5%
cells/section, n = 5 sections) but did not
generate Pax6, En1, Gbx2 or Krox20
cells. (d) CFB explants cultured alone
(n = 25) generated Otx2+/Pax6+cells
d (95 ± 5% cells/section, n = 5 sections)
but did not generate En1-, Gbx2- or
Krox20-expressing cells. (e) CFB ex-
plants cultured in the presence of
e mFrz8CRD-IgG (100 µl/ml; n = 27) gen-
erated Otx2+cells (95 ± 5% cells/sec-
tion, n = 6 sections) but did not generate
Pax6, En1, Gbx2 or Krox20 cells. Scale
bar, 100 µm.
nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002 527

a cells of diencephalic, midbrain and

b rostral hindbrain character.
We used New culture methods42 to
examine whether the attenuation of
Wnt signaling imposes a more rostral
c character in neural cells in intact
embryos. Control beads, or beads con-
taining mFrz8CRD-IgG, were
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

implanted beneath the neural plate

adjacent to the prospective mid-
d brain/caudal forebrain regions of
stage 4 embryos (Fig. 6a), and these
embryos were permitted to develop to
the 12–14 somite stage (Fig. 6c and d).
e Beads containing mFrz8CRD-IgG
induced morphological changes
indicative of an expansion of the cau-
dal forebrain region, which was con-
sistently more pronounced on the side
Fig. 5. Ongoing Wnt signaling in neural plate cells is required for the acquisition of midbrain and ros- of bead implantation (n = 5; Fig. 6d).
tral hindbrain character. (a) Schematic drawing of a HH stage 4 chick embryo. Dotted line, presumptive Analysis of the profile of transcription
neural plate; boxed regions, explants of the prospective neural plate used for in vitro studies: prospec- factor expression in these embryos
tive midbrain (MB, green) and prospective hindbrain (HB, blue). (b–e) Sox2/3 was used as a general
showed that cells normally located in
neural marker (95 ± 5% cells/section). (b) MB explants cultured alone (n = 22) generated
Otx2 /En1 cells (90 ± 10% cells/section, n = 10 sections) but not Pax6, En1-, Gbx2- or Krox20- the anterior region of the caudal fore-
+ +

expressing cells. (c) MB explants cultured in the presence of mFrz8CRD-IgG (120 µl/ml culture brain expressed Otx2 but not Pax6,
medium; n = 24) generated Otx2+cells (95 ± 5% cells/section, n = 10 sections), a few Pax6+ cells (5 ± indicating that caudal forebrain cells
5% cells/section, n = 10 sections), but no En1, Gbx2 or Krox20 cells. (d) RHB explants cultured alone had acquired rostral forebrain charac-
(n = 19) did not generate any Otx2+ or En1+cells but did generate Gbx2+ cells (90 ± 10% cells/section, ter (Fig. 6c and d). The domain in
n = 11) and Krox20+/Pax6+ cells (60 ± 20% cells/section, n = 14). (e) RHB explants cultured in the which Otx2 +/Pax6+ caudal forebrain
presence of mFrz8CRD-IgG (120 µl/ml; n = 24) generated Otx2+cells (90 ± 10% cells/section, n = 12 cells were present extended caudally
sections) that co-expressed Pax6 in 50 ± 30% of the cells/section (n = 11 sections). No En1-, Gbx2- or into the region normally occupied by
Krox20- expressing cells were generated. Scale bar, 100 µm.
En1+/Otx2+ midbrain cells. Consistent
with this, the number of En1+/Otx2+
midbrain cells was reduced and En1 was
of the prospective neural plate generates cells of rostral forebrain expressed at a much lower level by the remaining cells. In addi-
(RFB), caudal forebrain (CFB), midbrain (MB) and rostral hind- tion, the number of En1+/Gbx2+ cells characteristic of rhom-
brain (RHB) character in a position-dependent manner bomeres 1 and 2 of the rostral hindbrain was reduced (Fig. 6c
(Figs. 4a and 5a) and in the absence of mesodermal signals4. To and d). Collectively, these results provide evidence of a rostral-
examine whether Wnt signaling is required in neural tissue for to-caudal shift in the positional character of neural cells in
the acquisition of caudal neural character, we cultured stage 4 embryos exposed to mFrz8CRD-IgG.
explants isolated from different rostrocaudal levels of the prospec-
tive neural plate in the absence or presence of mFrz8CRD-IgG Distinct caudal fates imposed by graded Wnt signaling
(see Methods). The requirement for Wnt signaling in the generation of neural
Prospective RFB explants grown with or without mFrz8CRD- cells of three different rostrocaudal characters in explant assays,
IgG generated rostral forebrain–like cells that expressed Otx2, combined with the rostral-to-caudal shift in the positional char-
but not Pax6, En1, Krox20 or Gbx2 (Fig. 4b and c). When grown acter of in the New culture assays, led us to examine whether
alone, prospective CFB explants generated Otx2+ cells and Pax6+ Wnts induce different positional identities through actions at
cells, whereas in the presence of mFrz8CRD-IgG, no Pax6+ cells different concentration thresholds. Wnt3A, Wnt8c and Wnt11
were generated (Fig. 4d and e). In the absence of mFrz8CRD- show similar activities in several different assays
IgG, prospective MB explants generated Otx2+ cells and En1+ (, and
cells, whereas in the presence of mFrz8CRD-IgG, Otx2+ cells per- the ability of mFrz8CRD-IgG to block Wnt3A signaling was
sisted and no En1+ cells were generated (Fig. 5b and c). When demonstrated by assaying the block in induction of epidermal
grown alone, prospective RHB explants generated Krox20 +, character in blastula-stage chick epiblast cells in response to
Gbx2+ and Pax6+ cells, whereas in the presence of mFrz8CRD- Wnt3A (S. Wilson and T.E., unpublished data). Thus, we exam-
IgG, Otx2+ cells were generated, and a subset of these expressed ined the actions of Wnts on stage 4 RFB explants using Wnt3A
Pax6 (Fig. 5d and e). Thus, under these conditions, prospective conditioned medium43 (Fig. 7 and Table 1).
hindbrain cells acquired either rostral or caudal forebrain char- Stage 4 RFB explants (Fig. 7a and b) were exposed to differ-
acter. Stage 4 CFB, MB and RHB explants exposed to mFrz8CRD- ent concentrations of Wnt3A and to a constant concentration of
IgG were consistently smaller than explants grown alone (data FGF8. Consistent with previous studies4, Wnt3A alone did not
not shown), suggesting that Wnts exert a proliferative as well as induce caudal neural cells in stage 4 RFB explants at any concen-
a patterning effect during the early differentiation of neural cells. tration tested (data not shown). In the presence of Wnt3A (1×)
These results provide evidence that ongoing Wnt signaling in and FGF8 (10 ng/ml), Otx2+ cells and Otx2+/Pax6+ cells of ros-
prospective neural cells in vitro is required for the generation of tral and caudal forebrain character were generated, but no En1+

528 nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002


Fig. 6. Wnt signaling imposes rostrocau-

dal pattern on neural cells in intact chick a b
embryos. (a, b) Schematic drawings of
late HH stage 4 chick embryos. Dotted
line indicates presumptive neural plate.
(a) Blue dot indicates the site at which
beads soaked in either mFrz8CRD-IgG
or control conditioned medium (CM) c d e f
were grafted beneath the neural plate
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

adjacent to the prospective midbrain

(MB) region. (b) Blue dot indicates the
site at which beads soaked in either
Wnt3A or CM were grafted beneath the
prospective forebrain (FB) region.
(c, d) Dorsal view of 12 somite (12 som)
chick embryos derived from stage 4
embryos grafted with control (c) or
mFrz8CRD-IgG (d) beads adjacent to
the prospective midbrain region, and
maintained in New culture. The num-
bered horizontal bars indicate the posi-
tions of the sections analyzed for marker
expression. (e, f) Dorsal view of 14
somite chick embryos generated in New
culture from stage 4 embryos grafted
with control (e) or Wnt3A (f) beads
beneath the prospective forebrain.
Numbered horizontal bars indicate the
positions of the sections analyzed for
marker expression. (c–f) Sections taken
at an equal distance from the anterior tip
of the respective embryos.

midbrain cells or Krox20 Gbx2+ hind-

brain cells were detected (Fig. 7c). In
these explants, Otx2+/Pax6+ cells were
located at the periphery and
Otx2+/Pax6– cells at the core. This indicates that cells in the We used New culture methods42 to examine whether Wnt3A
peripheral regions of the explants are exposed to higher concen- induced caudal character in anterior neural tissue in intact chick
trations of Wnt3A than are cells at the core. Wnt3A (2×) and FGF8 embryos. Control beads or beads containing Wnt3A were
(10 ng/ml) induced Otx2 +/Pax6 + caudal forebrain cells and implanted beneath the prospective forebrain of stage 4 embryos
Otx2+/En1+ midbrain cells, but no Krox20+ Gbx2+ hindbrain cells (Fig. 6b), and embryos were permitted to develop to the 12–14
(Fig. 7d). Under these conditions, Otx2+/Pax6+ cells were located somite stage (Fig. 6e and f). Embryos with grafted Wnt3A beads
at the core and Otx2+/En1+ cells at the periphery of the explants, typically showed a reduction in rostral forebrain tissue. The
again a likely reflection of the exposure of peripheral cells to high- domain of Otx2+ rostral forebrain cells was reduced and the
er Wnt levels. Wnt3A (4× or 10×) and FGF8 (10 ng/ml) induced domains of Otx2 + /Pax6 + caudal forebrain cells and of
Otx2+/En1+ midbrain cells and Krox20+, Pax6+ and Gbx2+ ros- En1+/Otx2+ midbrain cells were shifted rostrally (Fig. 6e and
tral hindbrain cells (Fig. 7e). Under these conditions, Otx2+/En1+ f). These findings support the idea that elevated Wnt signaling
cells were located at the core and Krox20+ and Gbx2+ cells at the in the anterior region of embryos leads to a loss of anterior
periphery of the explants. Similar results were obtained with Xeno- neural tissue and/or head structures and to a rostral-to-caudal
pus laevis Wnt8 conditioned medium (data not shown). The con- shift in neural pattern7,16,18,25,26,44.
centration of mFrz8CRD-IgG required to block the generation
of cells of rostral hindbrain character in RHB explants was four- Permissive action of FGF signaling
fold higher than that required to block the generation of cau- To examine whether a variation in the level of FGF signaling
dal forebrain character in CFB explants (data not shown). Stage might also influence caudal regional character, we added FGF8
4 RFB explants exposed to Wnt3A were consistently larger than (10 or 40 ng/ml) to stage 4 RFB explants exposed to Wnt3A (1×)
explants grown alone (data not shown), supporting the view or to Wnt3A (4×). Varying the concentration of FGF did not
that Wnts enhance the proliferation of neural progenitor cells, change the proportion or distribution of caudal neural cells
in addition to their role in specifying rostro–caudal positional induced by Wnt signals (data not shown), suggesting that FGFs
identity. Taken together, these results provide in vitro evidence act solely in a permissive manner during the establishment of
that the caudalizing action of Wnts results from a direct action caudal neural character. Taken together, these findings indicate
on neural cells and that graded Wnt signaling, in combination that Wnts act directly, and in a concentration-dependent man-
with FGFs, specifies cells of caudal forebrain, midbrain and ros- ner, to induce cells of caudal forebrain, midbrain and rostral
tral hindbrain character. hindbrain character in RFB explants.

nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002 529


a b

© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

Fig. 7. Graded Wnt3A activity, in combination with FGF8, induces caudal regional character in prospective rostral forebrain cells. (a) Schematic
drawing of an HH stage 4 embryo. Dotted line, presumptive neural plate; red box, prospective RFB epiblast explant used for in vitro studies. (b) RFB
explant cultured alone expressed Sox2/3 (95 ± 3% cells/section, n = 8 sections) and Otx2+ cells (95 ± 5% Otx2+ cells/section, n = 8 sections). (c) RFB
explants cultured in the presence of FGF8 (10 ng/ml) and Wnt3A (1×, 25 µl of Wnt3A conditioned medium per milliliter of culture medium,
∼25 ng/ml) had a central domain of Otx2+/Pax6– cells (95 ± 5% Otx2+ cells/section, n = 9 sections), whereas peripheral cells (typically 1–2 cell diam-
eters) co-expressed Otx2 and Pax6 (96 ± 4% Otx2+/Pax6+ cells/section, n = 7 sections). (d) RFB explants cultured in the presence of FGF8
(10 ng/ml) and Wnt3A (2×) had a central domain of Otx2+/Pax6+ cells (95 ± 5% Otx2+/Pax6+ cells/section, n = 8 sections) and a peripheral domain
(typically 2–3 cell diameters) of En1+/Otx2+ cells (98 ± 2% Otx2+/En1+ cells/section, n = 8 sections). (e) RFB explants cultured in the in the presence
of FGF8 (10 ng/ml) and Wnt3A conditioned medium (4×) had a central domain of Otx2+/En1+ cells (95 ± 5% Otx2+/En1+ cells/section, n = 12 sec-
tions) and a peripheral domain (typically 3–5 cell diameters) of Gbx2+ (90 ± 8% Gbx2+cells/section, n = 12 sections), and Krox20+/Pax6+ cells
(60 ± 25% Krox20+/Pax6+ cells/section, n = 12 sections). In all conditions, >95% of the cells expressed Sox2/3. Scale bar, 100 µm.

DISCUSSION neural plate cells and in the head mesendoderm that underlies
This study reports three main findings: (i) Wnt signaling is the prospective rostral forebrain 16,44. This latter domain of
required to reprogram neural cells of initial rostral forebrain char- expression may explain the finding that gastrula-stage head
acter during the acquisition of caudal regional neural characters; mesoendodermal tissue possesses rostralizing activity4,5,46. Thus,
(ii) Wnts, in combination with FGFs, can induce cells of caudal the exclusion of Wnt signaling from the anterior region of the
forebrain, midbrain and rostral hindbrain characters; and (iii) early embryo is probably involved in maintaining the rostral
Wnts act in a graded manner directly on neural plate cells. These (Pax6−) forebrain character of neural progenitor cells.
findings support Wnt involvement in the signaling pathway by The present studies support the view that Wnts have distinct
which prospective neural plate cells acquire diencephalic, mid- roles in the development of the chick nervous system at blastu-
brain and rostral hindbrain identity during the early phases of la and gastrula stages. At the blastula stage, epiblast cells acquire
chick neural tube development. generic neural fates; Wnt signaling at this stage promotes epi-
The developmental patterns of expression of Wnts and Fgfs dermal fate and blocks neural fate, apparently by preventing epi-
are consistent with the notion that that combined Wnt and FGF blast cells from responding to the neuralizing actions of FGFs41.
signaling in neural plate cells induces caudal regional neural char- At late gastrula stages, after neural cells have become commit-
acters. At early gastrula stages, when prospective caudal neural ted to a neural fate, graded Wnt activity instead induces pro-
cells possess a rostral forebrain character, Wnts are preferential- gressively more caudal neural characters, through actions in
ly expressed in the posterior region of the primitive streak, and combination with FGF signaling. RA signaling at these stages is
thus are located at a considerable distance from caudal neural involved in inducing cells of caudal hindbrain and spinal cord
cells (ref. 14 and data not shown). At these developmental stages, character4,10,47, suggesting that the joint actions of RA, Wnts
secreted Wnt antagonists such as crescent and caronte are and FGFs are required to induce cells in the most caudal regions
expressed in prospective neural plate cells or in tissues that under- of the neural axis.
lie the entire prospective neural plate45, and thus may help to The functions of Wnts in neural patterning reported here
decrease the exposure of anterior neural cells to Wnt signals. Over extend previous findings in vertebrate embryos mutant in com-
this early period, Fgf8 is expressed along the entire length of the ponents of the Wnt signaling pathway. In the mouse,
developing primitive streak4. At late gastrula stages, when neur- Wnt3/Wnt3A double mutant embryos lack all mesoderm, and
al cells are exposed to signals that direct their caudal character, Wnt3A mutants generate ectopic neural plate tissue in place of
both FGFs and Wnts are expressed in the posterior regions of the caudal paraxial mesoderm 21,30,31. Moreover, mutant mouse
chick embryo, whereas Wnt inhibitors are expressed in rostral embryos that lack the function of the Wnt inhibitor dickkopf-1

530 nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002


fail to develop head structures rostral to the Table 1. Marker expression in rostral forebrain explants exposed to FGF8 and
midbrain 26 . In zebrafish, Wnt8 mutant Wnt3A.
embryos lack trunk and tail structures and
have ectopic neural tissue29. In addition, in
zebrafish masterblind mutant embryos, an
Otx2 (RFB) Otx2, En1 (MB)
apparent reduction in Axin1-dependent inhi- Otx2, Pax6 (CFB) Gbx2, Krox20, Pax6 (RHB)
bition of Wnt signaling is accompanied by a
loss of telencephalic structures and an expan-
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

sion of more caudal neural tissue25. Thus, [Wnt3A] Total no.

these genetic studies provide evidence that of explants
Wnt signaling is required for the induction
and patterning of neural tissue. Such genetic      
38 7 45
analyses do not, however, address whether
Wnts act directly or indirectly on neural cells
1× 12 19 22 1 4   58
to regulate their caudal regional character.
2× 
Wnts have been implicated in caudal 2 4 17 21 26 2 72
neural patterning in X. laevis, but again the
earlier involvement of Wnts in induction of 4× 5  2  24 32 15 78
mesoderm and epidermal ectoderm compli-
cates the task of distinguishing direct from Colored discs represent schematic figures of explants and the typical distribution of cells expressing
indirect Wnt action in rostrocaudal neural different region specific markers, characteristic of rostral forebrain (RFB), caudal forebrain (CFB),
patterning17,44. In blastula-stage ectoderm, midbrain (MB) and rostral hindbrain (RHB). For detailed quantification of marker expression, see
overexpression of the neural inducer Noggin Fig. 7 legend.
together with Wnts or the Wnt effector β-
catenin induces the expression of both cau-
dal neural and mesodermal markers. In contrast, in blastula-stage ing signals in the neural tube by similar or identical signals
ectoderm that has been neuralized by dissociation in Ca2+- and derived from extrinsic tissues may represent a common strate-
Mg2+-free medium, X. laevis Wnt8 induces caudal regional neur- gy for axial neural patterning.
al markers in the absence of markers of dorsal mesoderm24. In
gastrula-stage ectoderm, enhanced Wnt signaling leads to the METHODS
induction of caudal neural markers in adjacent cells, in the Isolation and growth of tissue explants. Prospective neural plate explants
absence of induction of mesodermal markers7. Under these con- were isolated from HH stage 3 and 4 chick embryos, and paraxial meso-
ditions, cells expressing caudal neural markers are induced by an derm explants were isolated from stage 4 and 5 quail embryos. Explants
indirect, non-cell-autonomous mechanism that apparently were cultured in vitro in serum-free OPTI-MEM containing N2 supple-
ment (Gibco-BRL/ Invitrogen, Paisley, UK) and fibronectin (Sigma). The
involves FGF signaling. Thus, these studies in X. laevis are con-
use of chick embryos in this study was approved by the ethical commit-
sistent with our findings in chick, indicating that the actions of tee at Umeå University.
FGFs and graded Wnt signaling on neural cells induce cells of
progressively more caudal neural character. Whole-embryo culture. HH stage 4 chick embryos were maintained in
Our results also provide evidence that Wnts mediate the New culture42 to the 12–14 somite stage. Blue-Beads (Bio-Rad, Hercules,
PMC activity described previously in chick assays4,5,12. In prin- California) soaked in mFrz8CRD-IgG, Wnt3A or control conditioned
ciple, the expression of Wnts in prospective caudal neural cells medium were grafted beneath different regions of the prospective neur-
does not exclude the possibility that a distinct signal derived al plate of host embryos. Embryos in which the bead was still in contact
from the paraxial mesoderm induces Wnt expression in neural with the forebrain or midbrain region at stage 7 (1–3 somite stage) were
cells, and that neurally derived Wnts impose caudal neural char- maintained in culture until the 12–14 somite stage. Eight embryos graft-
acters. However, the expression of Wnt8c and Wnt11 in the cau- ed with control beads, six grafted with mFrz8CRD-IgG beads and five
dal paraxial mesoderm precisely mimics the distribution of grafted with Wnt3A beads were cryosectioned (9 µm). Each section was
collected and analyzed by immunohistochemistry for marker expression.
tissues that possess PMC activity 5 (Fig. 1a–d and data not
shown). Moreover, Wnt3A, in combination with FGF8, induces Preparation of inducing factors. Soluble mouse Wnt3A and control con-
Wnt8c in prospective rostral forebrain cells. Although we can- ditioned media (CM) were obtained from stably transfected, or untrans-
not exclude the possible involvement of other Wnts, we show fected, mouse L-cells, respectively43, grown in Dulbecco’s modified Eagle’s
here that Wnt8c and Wnt11 are likely mediators of PMC activ- medium (DMEM) with 10% Knockout Replacement Serum (Gibco-
ity. BRL). Under these conditions, the CM contain ∼100 µg/ml of Wnt3A
The specification of caudal region neural characteristics by protein (R. Nusse, personal communication). The CM were concentrat-
Wnt signaling may, however, be a two-step process in which an ed using Centriprep 10,000-MWCO filters (Amicon/Millipore, Bedford,
initial phase of mesodermally derived Wnt signaling is consol- Massachusetts), divided into aliquots and stored at –80°C. Wnt3A was
idated by the expression of Wnts in prospective caudal neural used at an estimated concentration of 25–250 ng/ml (1–10×) in explant
assays. The mFrz8CRD-IgG40 and control CM were prepared by trans-
cells. This sequential ‘like-inducing-like’ strategy is reminiscent
fecting HEK-293 cells with the mFrz8CRD-IgG expression construct or
of the mechanisms that establish dorsoventral pattern in the with a lacZ reporter construct using Gene-PORTER 2 (GTSINC, San
neural tube. Sonic hedgehog (Shh) protein derived from the Diego, California). Cells were transferred to serum-free OPTI-MEM
axial mesoderm, and bone morphogenetic proteins (BMPs) (Gibco-BRL), and the CM was harvested after 48 h, concentrated with
derived from the flanking epidermal ectoderm, induce the Centriprep filters (Amicon), divided into aliquots and stored at –80°C.
expression of Shh and Bmps, respectively, in ventral and dorsal mFrz8CRD-IgG or lacZ CM were used at 100–160 µl/ml of explant medi-
midline neural cells48. Thus, the induction of secreted pattern- um. FGF8 (Gibco-BRL) was used at 10–40 ng/ml.

nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002 531


Immunohistochemistry, in situ hybridization and RT-PCR. In situ 20. Bang, A.G., Papalopulu, N., Goulding, M.D. & Kintner, C. Expression of Pax-
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have been described41. zebrafish through negative regulation of BMP2/4 and Wnt pathways.
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© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

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Progressive induction of caudal neural character by graded Wnt signaling

Ulrika Nordström, Thomas M. Jessell and Thomas Edlund
Nat. Neurosci. 5, 525-532 (2002)

The authors wish to correct the phrase “rostral-to-caudal shift” on page 528, which should read “rostrocaudal shift”. The error
occurs twice on this page.

nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 7 • july 2002 1


Ion channel properties underlying

axonal action potential initiation in
pyramidal neurons
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

Costa M. Colbert and Enhui Pan

Department of Biology and Biochemistry, University of Houston, 4800 Calhoun Road, Houston, Texas 77204-5513, USA
Correspondence should be addressed to C.C. (

Published online: 6 May 2002, DOI: 10.1038/nn857

A high density of Na+ channels in the axon hillock, or initial segment, is believed to determine the
threshold for action potential initiation in neurons. Here we report evidence for an alternative mech-
anism that lowers the threshold in the axon. We investigated properties and distributions of ion
channels in outside-out patches from axons and somata of layer 5 pyramidal neurons in rat neocorti-
cal slices. Na+ channels in axonal patches (>30 µm from the soma) were activated by 7 mV less depo-
larization than were somatic Na+ channels. A-type K+ channels, which were prominent in somatic
and dendritic patches, were rarely seen in axonal patches. We incorporated these findings into
numerical simulations which indicate that biophysical properties of axonal channels, rather than a
high density of channels in the initial segment, are most likely to determine the lowest threshold for
action potential initiation.

Determining where and when action potentials originate is crit- With these data in mind, we investigated biophysical mecha-
ical to understanding the computations that neurons perform1–3. nisms that might contribute to a low threshold for action poten-
A precise definition of the conditions for action potential initi- tial initiation in the axon. We recorded currents from membrane
ation requires knowledge of the distribution and of the biophys- patches in somata, initial segments and axons of layer 5 pyrami-
ical properties of the underlying ion channels. Because of the dal neurons in rat neocortical slices. There was a difference in the
very small diameters of axons in the brain, direct electrophysio- voltage dependence of activation of Na+ channels across these
logical measurements of axonal ion channels have only recently regions that favors the initiation of action potentials in the axon.
become feasible. Thus, the determinants of threshold and the site We also found that A-type K+ channels, which were prominent in
of initiation of action potentials in cortical neurons have somatic patches, were only rarely present in patches from the
remained a subject of debate4,5. axon or initial segment.
Considerable recent evidence indicates that action potentials
are often initiated near the soma rather than at the site of synap- RESULTS
tic input in the dendrites6–14, suggesting that the axon has a low We measured currents using the outside-out patch configura-
threshold for action potential initiation. The mechanism under- tion, which provided several advantages over other recording
lying this low threshold has long been assumed to be a high den- modes for our specific experiments. First, because we recorded
sity of Na+ channels in the axon hillock or initial segment, which briefly in the whole-cell configuration before the patch was
is typically 25–30 µm in length as defined by ultrastructural char- pulled, we could assess the health of the cell before forming the
acteristics15,16. Although such a mechanism receives support from patch. Second, we could ensure that the electrode was attached
theoretical studies14,17–19 and from labeling studies20–22, electro- to neuronal rather than glial membrane by evoking an action
physiological studies of action potential initiation in large pyra- potential. Third, the voltage clamp directly set the transmem-
midal neurons indicate that the initial segment is not the site of brane potential, thus minimizing errors in estimating the rest-
action potential initiation in these cells. First, simultaneous ing potential of the neuron. We recorded currents in visually
recordings from the soma and initial segment indicate that action identified somata (Fig. 1a), in initial segments (<30 µm from the
potentials are initiated in the axon beyond the initial segment in soma) and in axons (30–47 µm from the soma).
response to synaptic input in layer 1 (ref. 10). Second, local appli- The set of currents evoked by depolarizing steps from a neg-
cation of tetrodotoxin (a Na+ channel blocker) to the initial seg- ative holding potential differed qualitatively between axonal
ment does not alter the threshold for initiating action potentials and somatodendritic patches. In somatic patches (Fig. 1b) and
in response to somatic current injection. Instead, application of in patches from the basal dendrites (not shown, n = 4), a rapid-
tetrodotoxin to the axon beyond the initial segment raises the ly activating and inactivating inward current (INa) was followed
threshold by 7–10 mV (ref. 23). These results indicate that Na+ by an outward current with both transient (IK(A), A-type) and
channels in the axon proper rather than in the initial segment sustained (IK(DR), delayed rectifier) components9,23,24. In patch-
may determine the threshold. es from the initial segment and axon proper, however, A-type

nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002 533


a Fig. 1. Total ensemble currents in outside-out patches from visually

identified somata and axons of neocortical layer 5 pyramidal neurons.
(a) Infrared-illuminated, differential interference contrast image of a
pyramidal neuron. Small arrows indicate the path of an axon. White
arrow indicates the recording electrode. IS, initial segment. Scale bar,
Soma IS Axon 10 µm. (b) Representative currents in outside-out patches from the
soma and axon. Patches were held at a holding potential of –100 mV and
b IK(A) stepped to test potentials between –50 and 0 mV. Somatic patches had
Soma a prominent transient outward current (IK(A)) in addition to inward INa
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group



and sustained outward IK(DR) currents. Axonal patches did not have the
Axon transient outward current. (c) In axonal patches, applying greater depo-
larizations (–10 to 40 mV) to increase the driving force of K+ currents
did not result in any transient K+ currents. Waveforms are leak-
30 pA
subtracted averages of 15–20 individual sweeps.
20 ms

0 mV
–50 mV Next, we estimated the relative density of Na+ channels by
–100 mV comparing the magnitude of peak currents in somatic and
c axonal patches. Patches from the somata, initial segments and
Axon axons had peak currents of 26.6 ± 7.9 pA (n = 8),
22.4 ± 0.5 pA (n = 7) and 99.8 ± 33.7 pA (n = 9). Excluding a
40 pA
single outlier in the axon group of 308 pA reduced the peak
5 ms
current to 63.9 ± 13.0 pA (n = 8). Plotting the peak current
+40 mV versus distance from the soma (Fig. 2d) indicated that the cur-
–10 mV
–100 mV rent per patch was uniform throughout the initial segment
before increasing two- to threefold in the axon. Steady-state
inactivation, however, was similar in all patches. (Half-inacti-
current was only occasionally seen (2 of 18 patches). This may vation potentials for soma, initial segment and axon were
have resulted from either a low density of A-type channels or a –66 ± 2.4 mV (n = 6), –66 ± 1.8 mV (n = 5) and –69 ± 1.2 mV
restriction of these channels to specific regions25. In most patch- (n = 5) and slopes were 5.3 ± 0.6 (n = 6), 5.9 ± 1.8 (n = 5) and
es, only the inward and the sustained outward currents were 5.3 ± 0.8 mV (n = 5), respectively.)
present (Fig. 1b and c). Tetrodotoxin (1 µM) blocked the inward Previous work addressing action potential initiation in pyra-
current (n = 2) and 10 mM tetraethylammonium blocked the midal neurons indicated that there may be a 7–10-mV differ-
sustained outward current, as expected for INa and IK(DR). ence in the voltage thresholds of the axon and soma 23 . To
To test whether the biophysical properties and distribution of investigate whether the voltage dependence of Na+ channel
Na+ channels varied in the soma, initial segment and axon, we activation could account for such a difference in threshold, we
compared ensemble averages of Na+ currents (Fig. 2a). We con- numerically simulated a pyramidal neuron using a compart-
structed an activation curve from each ensemble and fit it with
a Boltzmann curve (Fig. 2b, see Methods) to yield a half-activa-
tion potential (V1/2) and a slope (k). Patches from the somata, a 0 mV
–60 mV
initial segments and axons had V1/2 values of –31.6 ± 0.5 mV –100 mV
(n = 7), –30.1 ± 1.4 mV (n = 7) and –38.4 ± 1.6 mV (n = 8) and
k values of 6.8 ± 0.46 (n = 7), 8.1 ± 0.62 (n = 7) and 6.0 ± 0.48
35 pA
(n = 8), respectively. A one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA)
1.25 ms
of the half-activation potentials indicated significant differences
between the axon and soma and between the axon and initial seg- b 1.0
ment. A plot of V1/2 as a function of the distance from the soma


indicated that this may have been due to a shift in the voltage 0.6 Axon
dependence near the end of the initial segment rather than a 0.4
gradual decrease with distance (Fig. 2c). Thus, Na+ channels in 0.2
the axon proper required less depolarization for activation than –80 –60 –40 –20 0 20
did Na+ channels in the soma or initial segment. c Command potential (mV)
Activation V1/2 (mV)


Fig. 2. Na+ channel properties differ between the soma and axon.
(a) Representative ensemble currents in an outside-out patch from the –40
soma. The patch was held at a holding potential of –100 mV and stepped 0 15 30 45
to test potentials from –60 to 0 mV. (b) Voltage dependence of activa- Distance from soma (µm)
tion in somatic and axonal patches. Each curve is the best-fit Boltzmann
Peak current (pA)

for an individual patch. Axonal Na+ channels (solid lines) were activated 120
by less depolarization than somatic channels (dotted lines). (c) V1/2 of
Na+ currents plotted as a function of position along the axon. (d) Peak 60
Na+ current at 0 mV plotted for each patch as a function of position
along the axon. The values in (c) and (d) remained relatively constant 0 15 30 45
throughout the initial segment before changing in the axon. Distance from soma (µm)

534 nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002


Fig. 3. Effect of Na+ channel properties on action potential threshold: a

computer simulations. (a) Reconstructed cell showing the position of
current injection (400 pA) into the apical dendrite. (b) Superimposed 400 pA
somatic action potential waveforms. Rightmost action potential in
each panel corresponds to uniform V1/2 and density. Left, the V1/2 of
300 µm
Na+ channel activation was varied from –2 to –8 mV. Right, the density
of Na+ channels in the initial segment was increased 10-, 20-, 50- and
100-fold. (c) Voltage thresholds measured at the soma for each value
of increased density (squares) and shifted V1/2 (circles). Although both b
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

modifications lowered the threshold, very high increases in density

20 mV
were required.
8 ms

–8 mV 100x

mental model (Fig. 3). We also investigated how a high densi-

ty of Na+ channels in the initial segment might alter the thresh- V1/2 activation Initial segment density

old. First, we varied the V 1/2 of Na + channels in the axon

beyond the initial segment from –2 mV to –8 mV (Fig. 3b, left). c Initial segment density (n-fold)
The action potential threshold measured at the soma became 100 50 10 1

Voltage threshold (mV)

more negative as the shift in V1/2 became greater (Fig. 3c). The Density
observed shifts in V1/2 were sufficient to account for the dif- Activation

ferences in the experimentally observed threshold. To test the –50

effect on the threshold of Na+ channel density in the initial

segment, we varied the density from 10- to 100-fold, as com- –60
pared with the somatic density, while keeping the V1/2 uniform –8 –6 –4 –2 0
Shift in activation V1/2 (mV)
(Fig. 3b, right). Increasing the Na+ channel density in the ini-
tial segment decreased the threshold, but this required very
high channel densities (Fig. 3c).
We next investigated how the site of initiation varied as a todendritic extent (Fig. 4a and b, 0 mV). That is, the action
function of axonal Na+ channel activation or initial segment potential was initiated simultaneously across much of the neu-
density using the compartmental model. We observed the ini- ron rather than propagating through the neuron. Shifting the
tial development of the action potential by plotting membrane V1/2 of Na+ channels in the axon or increasing the density of
potential as a function of position (a space plot) along the axon, Na + channels in the initial segment altered this pattern of
soma and the apical dendrite (Fig. 4a–c) and as a function of action potential initiation; the action potential was initiated
time (Fig. 4b). With Na + channel activation held uniform first in the axon or initial segment, respectively (Fig. 4a, –7 mV
across the neuron, current injection into the dendrite (350 µm and 100× traces). This bias toward action potential initiation
from the soma, 500 pA) produced a regenerative depolariza- in the axon or initial segment was proportional to the magni-
tion across the neuron’s initial segment and much of its soma- tude of the shift in the V1/2 (Fig. 4c, left traces) or the increase
in density (Fig. 4c, right traces), indicating that suf-
ficiently strong dendritic depolarization may over-
come this bias to produce dendritic initiation26,27.
a Inject 500 pA
c Although both models lowered the threshold and
biased the neuron away from initiating an action
potential in the dendrites, the spatial patterns of action
0 mV 1× potential initiation differed considerably. When we
shifted the V1/2 of axonal Na+ channels toward more
0 mV/ negative potentials, the length of axon that participat-
1× ed in producing the regenerative current during action
–2 mV
potential initiation (200 µm) was much greater than

–7 mV
40 mV Fig. 4. Spatial patterns of action potential initiation: com-
puter simulations. (a) Reconstructed cell showing the posi-
500 µm
50 mV tion of current injection (500 pA) into the apical dendrite
250 µm
–4 mV 20× (top). Space plots show membrane potential (Vm) across the
axodendritic axis. Waveforms in each group represent differ-
ent time points beginning just before action potential initia-
tion and ending before propagation begins. 0 mV/1×, uniform
b s
–6 mV 50× Na+ channel properties; –7 mV, Na+ channel activation
0 mV d d shifted –7 mV in the axon; 100×, 100-fold increase in Na+
s channel density in the initial segment. (b) Action potential
waveforms (left) in the soma (s) and dendrites (d) and corre-
40 mV 80 mV
sponding time derivatives dV/dt (right). 0 mV, uniform Na+
–8 mV 100× channel properties; –7 mV, Na+ channel activation shifted
–7 mV 8 ms s 2.5 ms
d –7 mV in the axon. (c) Space plots as in (a) at intermediate
Shift axon V1/2 Increase IS density values of shifted activation (left) and increased initial segment
(IS) density (right).

nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002 535


a Fig. 5. Threshold increases when a pyramidal neuron is cut at the end of

the initial segment. (a) Action potentials recorded in response to
somatic current injection in a control pyramidal neuron (dotted line) and
Axon cut 30 mV a pyramidal neuron with its axon cut at the end of the initial segment
10 ms (solid line). Cutting the axon raised the threshold. (b) A brief strong cur-
300 pA rent injection evoked a full-amplitude action potential in both the control
and cut cells. (c) Computer simulations of cut (solid lines) and control
neurons (dotted lines) distinguished between models. With a –7-mV shift
b in Na+ channel activation in the axon and either uniform (black lines) or
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

10-fold higher (gray lines) density of Na+ channels in the initial segment
30 mV cutting the axon raised the threshold, (upper traces). With 50-fold
1.25 ms higher density of Na+ channels in the initial segment, cutting the axon did
not raise the threshold (lower traces).
2.5 nA

c contribute to a low threshold for action potential initiation. They

imply a mechanism favoring initiation of action potentials in the
–7 mV axon that differs in two ways from the widely accepted scheme.
First, the properties of Na+ channels producing the low threshold
for action potential initiation exist in the axon proper rather than
30 mV
in the axon hillock/initial segment. A long history of reports indi-
10 ms
cating that action potential initiation may occur beyond the axon
50 × hillock/initial segment10,23,28–31 substantiates this idea. Second,
a shift in the voltage dependence of activation of Na+ channels
350 pA in the axon, rather than a high density of Na+ channels in the ini-
tial segment, determines the low threshold. In addition to the
present findings, rapid changes in threshold after the induction of
the length of the initial segment. In fact, the initial segment con- long-term potentiation32 and after pharmacological activation
tributed relatively little to the regenerative current, because the of protein kinase C (ref. 33) seem more readily explained by mod-
electrical load presented by the soma and dendrites limited its ulation of channel properties than by rapid insertion of large
depolarization. In contrast, in the high-Na+-channel-density numbers of Na+ channels into the membrane.
model, the initial segment played the chief role in producing the Although it has been commonly believed that a high density
initial regenerative current. The pattern of initiation in the of Na+ channels in the axon hillock and initial segment deter-
shifted-activation model was thus more consistent with previ- mines the threshold for action potential initiation, this idea has
ous experimental results where direct application of tetrodotox- had mixed experimental support. A high density was apparently
in to the initial segment did not change the threshold23. first suggested in a computer study17 motivated by ultrastructur-
The fortuitous finding of a pyramidal neuron that had been al similarities between the node of Ranvier and the initial seg-
cut through the axon at 25 µm from the soma by the slicing pro- ment15,16. Subsequent immunohistochemical studies20,21 indicated
cedure allowed a further experimental test of the models. We com- that there may be as much as a tenfold higher density of Na+ chan-
pared thresholds in this cut neuron and in a neighboring pyramidal nels in the initial segment, although only a fraction of neurons
neuron (in the same field in the slice) that did not have a cut axon. showed increased densities. A freeze-fracture study found the total
Both cells were healthy by visual criteria and had resting poten- number of particles in the initial segment to be only threefold
tials of –63 mV. The shifted-Na+-channel-activation model pre- higher than in the soma34. Patch-clamp studies in subiculum23
dicted that cutting the axon at the end of the initial segment would and in neocortex (ref. 35 and present results) have not detected
raise the threshold because the cut would eliminate the channels any increase in the density of Na+ channels in the initial segment.
with shifted activation. The high-density model predicted that Of course, each of these methods may have underestimated or
threshold would not increase because the cut would preserve the overestimated the true relative density of functional channels.
high density of channels in the initial segment. Recording from Recent computer simulations of pyramidal neurons used very
the neuron with the cut axon showed an increased threshold in high densities of Na+ channels in the initial segment (200–1,000-
response to somatic depolarization (Fig. 5a). The action potential fold higher than the somatic density) to account for the pattern of
was also greatly reduced in amplitude and rate. To test whether the axonal action potential initiation and back-propagation in pyra-
small amplitude of the action potential in the cut neuron was due midal neurons18,19. Together with the present simulations, the
to inactivation of Na+ channels or was an indication of some other results of these studies indicate that the threshold may be relative-
damage, we stimulated each neuron with a strong depolarizing ly insensitive to Na+ channel density in the initial segment and that
current. The resulting action potentials in each neuron had equiv- moderately elevated densities such as those reported by immuno-
alent amplitude and rate of rise (Fig. 5b), indicating that no sub- histochemical studies are unlikely to contribute strongly to a lower
stantial source of Na+ current near the soma was lost because of threshold. The relatively small effects on the threshold of altering
the cut. Numerical simulation confirmed that cutting the axon at the density of Na+ channels in the initial segment results from mor-
the end of the initial segment raised the threshold in the shifted- phological factors. The initial segment is physically and electrical-
activation model but not in the high-density model (Fig. 5c). ly very near the much larger soma and apical dendrite. Thus, the
membrane potential of the initial segment tends to be ‘clamped’
DISCUSSION to the somatic potential by the soma’s relatively large capacitance.
These data are the first direct electrophysiological measurements When action potentials were initiated in the axon because of the
in cortical axons of ion channel properties and distributions that shifted V1/2, a relatively large length of axon, as compared with the

536 nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002


initial segment, participated in the production of the regenerative bath solution to block Na+ currents in some experiments. We purchased
potential. The initial segment contributed little to the depolariza- all other reagents from Sigma.
tion but served to isolate the axon from the electrical load of the We visualized axons of layer 5 pyramidal neurons using infrared-
soma. The exact length of the axon that participated in initiating illuminated differential interference contrast optics (BX50WI micro-
scope, Olympus) and a Newvicon camera (DAGE-MTI, Michigan City,
the action potential depended on the passive membrane parame-
Indiana). In the oldest animals, axons beyond the initial segment looked
ters, which have not been explicitly determined for the small axons much like those in myelinated tracts, having a ‘railroad track’ appear-
that we studied. Using typical ranges of values for passive para- ance. Whole-cell recording always yielded a cell that could fire an action
meters, however, this length was about 200–300 µm. In this case, it
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

potential. We made recordings using an Axopatch 200 amplifier (Axon

is more correct to think of a region of initiation rather than a dis- Instruments, Union City, California) using patch pipettes of about
crete site. In myelinated axons, this region of initiation may be 15 MΩ made from EN-1 glass and coated with Sylgard (Dow-Corning,
much longer and may involve multiple nodes of Ranvier. Such a Auburn, Michigan). We made all recordings at room temperature
finding was suggested in a study in vivo that compared ortho- (23 ± 0.5°C). We constructed ensemble waveforms from 15–25 indi-
dromic and antidromic action potentials in a motor neuron31. vidual sweeps and digitally leak subtracted them using scaled versions
We have investigated two distinct models that might account of the steps to –70 mV. We filtered the recordings at 2 kHz (8-pole
Bessel), sampled them at 10 kHz at 16-bit resolution (ITC18, Instrutech
for a low threshold for action potential initiation in the axon.
Corporation, Port Washington, New York) and stored them on a com-
The shifted-activation model used uniform densities, whereas puter (Apple Computer, Cupertino, California) for offline analysis.
the increased-density model used uniform activation. The pres- To construct activation curves, we held patches at –100 mV and stepped
ence or absence of these specializations need not, however, be them to –70, –60, –50, –45, –40, –30, –20, –10 and 0 mV. The peak current
mutually exclusive. In fact, modestly increased densities of Na+ at each potential was then converted to a chord conductance assuming a
channels in the initial segment improved the initial rate of rise Na+ reversal potential of +55 mV. We made a least-squares fit to a single
of the action potential in the simulations without much effect on Boltzmann function (Mathematica, Wolfram Research, Champaign, Illi-
the threshold (for example, Fig. 5c). This finding indicated that a nois) for each individual patch, yielding a half activation (V1/2) and a
possible role for increased density of Na+ channels in the initial slope. Somatic patches included K+ channel blockers to block the fast
transient K+ currents. We included axonal and initial segment patches
segment may be to ensure back-propagation of action potentials
without blockers in the analysis because they lacked the fast transient cur-
into the soma after initiation in the axon. Furthermore, if a high rent, and the relatively small sustained current reached a maximum well
density of Na+ channels indeed exists beyond 30 µm from the after the peak of the Na+ current. We included K+ channel blockers in
soma (despite our patch estimates), then the shifted kinetics and some patches (n = 2 in the axon, n = 3 in the initial segment). For inacti-
density would combine to lower the threshold farther, perhaps vation curves, we held patches at potentials between –100 and –30 mV
confining initiation of the action potential to this region. for 3 s and then stepped them to 0 mV to evoke currents. We normalized
A shift in the voltage dependence of activation of Na+ chan- data to the maximum current (from –100 mV) and fit them to a negative
nels is just one of several regional specializations within the cell Boltzmann curve. We determined significance by an ANOVA, with a
that together would promote action potential initiation in the post hoc Tukey’s test between groups. Statistical significance was taken to
axon. A prominent gradient in the density of A-type channels in be P < 0.05. We reported all summary data as mean ± s.e.m.
We made computer simulations using NEURON40. The model was
the dendrites of CA1 pyramidal neurons serves to limit dendritic similar to that described in Hoffman et al.9 with some modifications.
initiation of action potentials9,26. A similar gradient of nonspe- We visualized a layer 5 pyramidal neuron from a 23-day-old rat using
cific cation channels (Ih) may function similarly by decreasing the biocytin as previously described23 and reconstructed it morphologi-
input resistance of the dendrites36. Our finding that A-type K+ cally using Neurolucida (MicroBrightfield, Colchester, Vermont). Sim-
channels were generally absent in axonal patches would contribute ulations assumed a temperature of 23°C. Passive parameters were
to a lower threshold in the axon. Alternatively, this finding may Rm = 50,000 Ωcm2, Ri = 100 Ωcm and Cm = 1 µF/cm2, except in the
dendrites, where Cm = 2 µF/cm2. The baseline channel densities were
simply reflect the clustering of channels to perinodal regions25. gNa = 0.0336 S/cm2, gK(DR) = 0.0154 S/cm2 and gK(A) = 0.0031 +
Taken together, the presence of these specializations indicates 0.00465 × (distance from soma per 200 µm). The Na+ channel density
that at least under some conditions, pyramidal neurons may be in the axon beyond the initial segment was set threefold higher. The
biased to initiate action potentials from an axonal site. Under Na+ channel model was of the form gNa = gNa m3h. Parameters were
such conditions, synaptic input throughout the dendrites would determined by least-squares fit to axonal Na+ current ensemble aver-
be summed and thresholded to produce an output in the form ages. The maximum value of m3h was 0.35, and thus the peak Na+ con-
ductance in the model was about 12 mS/cm2. Steady-state values for
of an action potential in the axon, which would subsequently m and h were of the form ss(v) = α(v)/(α(v) + β(v)), and time con-
back-propagate into the dendrites to signal that firing has stants τ = 1/(α(v) + β(v)), αm(v) = 0.182(v– V)/(1 – Exp[–{v – V}/6])
occurred35,37. Advantages to placing the thresholding function and βm = 0.124(–v + V)/(1 – Exp[{–v + V}/6]), αh(v) = –0.015(v –
in the axon may include minimizing any effects of changes in Vh)/(1 – Exp[{v – Vh}/6]) and βh = –0.015(–v + Vh)/(1 – Exp[{–v +
dendritic or somatic conductance, or synchronizing the output of Vh}/6]). In the soma, dendrites and initial segment, V was –40 mV. To
a population of neurons38,39. test the effect of altering the voltage dependence of activation, we var-
ied V between –40 and –48 mV. We used a V of –40 mV across the cell
in simulations that varied the initial segment density. We set Vh to
METHODS –69 mV in the axon and –66 mV in the remainder of the neuron. To
Neocortical slices (300 µm) were prepared from 14–24-day-old Sprague- allow for errors in estimating the actual length of the initial segment,
Dawley rats23 according to protocols approved by the University of Hous- simulations tested lengths of both 30 and 50 µm. Action potential
ton Institutional Animal and Use Committee. The external artificial threshold was taken as the point where the second time derivative of
cerebrospinal fluid contained 125 mM NaCl, 2.5 mM KCl, 1.25 mM the membrane potential waveform reached a value of 5 mV/ms2.
NaH2PO4, 25 mM NaHCO3, 2.0 mM CaCl2, 1.0 mM MgCl2 and 25 mM
dextrose. The pipette solution used for outside-out patch recordings con-
tained 140 mM potassium gluconate, 10 mM HEPES, 10 mM EGTA, Acknowledgments
4.0 mM NaCl, 4.0 mM Mg2ATP and 0.3 mM Mg2GTP (pH 7.3). To block This work was supported by a National Institute of Neurological Disorders and
K + channels, 10 mM tetraethylammonium chloride and 10 mM 4- Stroke (NINDS) grant (NS36982) to C.M.C. We thank J. Stringer, D. Johnston,
aminopyridine replaced equi-osmolar amounts of potassium gluconate. M. Rea, A. Eskin, G. Cahill and S. Dryer for reading earlier versions of the
We included 1 µM tetrodotoxin (Alomone Labs, Jerusalem, Israel) in the manuscript, and L. Cleary for the use of the Neurolucida system.

nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002 537


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538 nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002


Prefontal cortex in long-term memory: an “interference” approach using magnetic

Simone Rossi, Stefano F. Cappa, Claudio Babiloni, Patrizio Pasqualetti, Carlo Miniussi, Filippo Carducci, Fabio Babiloni
and Paolo M. Rossini
Nat. Neurosci. 4, 948–952 (2001)
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

The title of this article contained a typographical error. It should have read as follows:

Prefrontal cortex in long-term memory: an “interference” approach using magnetic


Ion channel properties underlying axonal action potential initiation in pyramidal

Costa M. Colbert and Enhui Pan
Nat. Neurosci. 5, 533–538 (2002)

A printer’s error introduced an extraneous diagonal line into Fig. 2b on page 534. The correct figure is reproduced below.

b 1.0 Fig. 2. Na+ channel properties differ between



the soma and axon. (b) Voltage dependence of

0.6 Axon activation in somatic and axonal patches. Each
0.4 Soma
curve is the best-fit Boltzmann for an individual
0.2 patch. Axonal Na+ channels (solid lines) were
–80 –60 –40 –20 0 20 activated by less depolarization than somatic
Command potential (mV) channels (dotted lines).

Neurotrophins use the Erk5 pathway to mediate a retrograde survival response
Fiona L. Watson, Heather M. Heerssen, Anita Bhattacharyya, Laura Klesse, Michael Z. Lin and Rosalind A. Segal
Nat. Neurosci. 4, 981–988 (2001)

In Fig. 5e on page 986, the pluses and minuses for lines “PD to DA” and “PD to CB” were incorrect. The conclusions stated in the text
and the experimental description in the figure legend were correct. The corrected figure is reproduced below.

Fig. 5. Activation of Erk5 promotes survival. (e) Neurons in compart-

e mented cultures were treated with PD98059 (PD) to distal axons or cell
bodies, as indicated. Distal axons were stimulated with neurotrophins
and cell body lysates were immunoblotted for P-CREB. PD treatment of
distal axons alone does not prevent CREB phosphorylation. When PD is
applied to the cell bodies, CREB phosphorylation is inhibited.

A-kinase anchoring proteins in amygdala are involved in auditory fear memory

Marta A.P. Moita, Raphael Lamprecht, Karim Nader and Joseph E. LeDoux
Nat. Neurosci. 5, 837–838 (2002)

The authors wish to correct their supplementary methods online, which gave the wrong sources for three antibodies. The mouse
anti-RIIα and anti-RIIβ antibodies were obtained from Transduction Laboratories (San Diego, California), and the rabbit anti-
AKAP150 antibody was obtained from Santa Cruz Biotechnology (Santa Cruz, California).

nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 10 • october 2002 1017


A rapid switch in sympathetic

neurotransmitter release properties
mediated by the p75 receptor
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

Bo Yang*, John D. Slonimsky* and Susan J. Birren

Department of Biology, Volen Center for Complex Systems, 415 South St., M/S 008, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts 02454, USA
* The first two authors contributed equally to this work.

Correspondence should be addressed to S.J.B. (

Published online: 29 April 2002, DOI: 10.1038/nn853

Cardiac function is modulated by norepinephrine release from innervating sympathetic neurons.

These neurons also form excitatory connections onto cardiac myocytes in culture. Here we report
that brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) altered the neurotransmitter release properties of
these sympathetic neuron–myocyte connections in rodent cell culture, leading to a rapid shift from
excitatory to inhibitory cholinergic transmission in response to neuronal stimulation. Fifteen
minutes of BDNF perfusion was sufficient to cause this shift to inhibitory transmission, indicating
that BDNF promotes preferential release of acetylcholine in response to neuronal stimulation. We
found that p75–/– neurons did not release acetylcholine in response to BDNF and that neurons
overexpressing p75 showed increased cholinergic transmission, indicating that the actions of BDNF
are mediated through the p75 neurotrophin receptor. Our findings indicate that p75 is involved in
modulating the release of distinct neurotransmitter pools, resulting in a functional switch between
excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmission in individual neurons.

Nerve growth factor (NGF), BDNF, neurotrophin-3 and neu- of a p75 signaling pathway—markedly increased cholinergic
rotrophin 4/5 comprise the neurotrophin family of neu- transmission and resulted in a functional switch to an inhibitory
rotrophic factors. The effects of neurotrophins on cell function postsynaptic response.
are mediated through ligand-specific binding to members of
the Trk family of receptor tyrosine kinases and through p75, a RESULTS
receptor capable of binding all members of the neurotrophin BDNF promotes cholinergic transmission
family 1. Neurotrophins have extensive effects on neuronal In culture, sympathetic neurons formed functional connections
development and function, as they support neuronal survival, to cardiac myocytes (Fig. 1a and d). Functional connections are
trigger cell death, promote process outgrowth and modulate characterized by the stimulus-evoked release of neurotrans-
synaptic plasticity2. mitter13,17, which leads to a postsynaptic response that can be
Neurotrophins act as short-term (acute) and long-term measured as a change in myocyte beat rate during neuronal
(chronic) modulators of synaptic activity in the central and stimulation (Fig. 1a)5,18. Under these culture conditions, there
peripheral nervous systems3. Studies report that neurotrophins was no spontaneous neuronal activity, which allowed us to mea-
act presynaptically at developing motor synapses4, at sympathetic sure the evoked response of the myocytes. We measured the
neuron–cardiac myocyte synapses5, in hippocampal slices6 and magnitude of the functional postsynaptic response for neu-
in cultured cortical neurons7. Neurotrophins regulate features of ron–myocyte pairs cultured for 3 days in 5 ng/ml NGF alone
neurotransmitter release such as the number of synaptic vesicles, (control) and supplemented with additional NGF, BDNF or cil-
the expression of synaptic proteins, the number of docked vesicles iary neurotrophic factor (CNTF) (Fig. 1a and b). In the con-
and the probability of vesicle fusion7–10. trol condition, neuronal stimulation led to an increase in
In the peripheral nervous system, NGF is involved in estab- myocyte beat rate. There was a small (not statistically signifi-
lishing synaptic connections between sympathetic neurons and cant) increase in myocyte response after the 3-day (chronic)
myocytes during development11,12 and acutely potentiates exci- treatment with 50 compared to 5 ng/ml NGF, suggesting that
tatory neurotransmission in vitro5 via the TrkA receptor. In cul- any actions of NGF on the development of synaptic connectiv-
ture, neonatal sympathetic neurons can release norepinephrine, ity were saturated at 5 ng/ml NGF. In cultures treated with 100
acetylcholine or both, depending on environmental signals13–16. ng/ml BDNF, neuronal stimulation led to a marked decrease in
Thus, the acute modulation of synaptic activity by NGF raises myocyte beat rate (Fig. 1a and b). BDNF did not alter the aver-
the question of whether neurotrophins modulate the release of age baseline beat rate of cardiac myocytes (mean baseline beat
specific neurotransmitters. We found that activation of the p75 rate in control, 32 ± 12 beats/min; BDNF, 37 ± 11 beats/min).
receptor—by BDNF treatment, p75 overexpression or activation Thus, in cultures treated for 3 days, BDNF caused a net change

nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002 539


Fig. 1. BDNF promotes cholinergic transmission in sympathetic neu-

a ron–myocyte cocultures. (a) Neonatal sympathetic neurons were
cultured for 3 days with neonatal ventricular myocytes in the pres-
ence of 5 ng/ml NGF either without (Control, left) or with 100 ng/ml
BDNF (right). For neuron–myocyte pairs (as in d), myocyte beat rate
was measured before, during and after neuronal stimulation. Data is
shown as the relative change in myocyte beat rate compared to the
average baseline for the individual myocyte (mean baseline beat rate
for control, 17 beats/min; BDNF, 33 beats/min). Although baseline
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

myocyte beat rates varied from cell to cell, average beat rate was not
affected by BDNF treatment (see Results). (b) Averaged data for
control (Con) and cultures grown in the presence of additional NGF
(50 ng/ml), BDNF (100 ng/ml) or CNTF (10 ng/ml). To confirm that
b CNTF functioned as a cholinergic differentiation factor, cultures
were maintained for 3 weeks with or without CNTF and then sub-
jected to the beat rate assay. By the 3-week time-point, CNTF had
induced a functional switch to inhibitory neurotransmission (mean ±
s.e.m., n ≥ 7 for each condition). Cultures treated with BDNF and 3
weeks of CNTF were significantly different from controls (*, P <
0.001). (c) Atropine (1 µM) or propranolol (10 µM) was included in
the bath solution to block cholinergic or noradrenergic transmission,
respectively (mean ± s.e.m., n ≥ 4 for each condition). BDNF + pro-
pranolol was significantly different from control (Con) + propranolol
(*, P < 0.02). (d) Neurons positioned near beating myocytes were
stimulated to elicit action potentials at 2.5 Hz (scale bar, 10 µm).
ergic transmission was seen. BDNF significantly enhanced this
inhibitory cholinergic transmission (Fig. 1c). Sympathetic neu-
rons can package both norepinephrine and acetylcholine, and
are capable of dual release of these transmitters17. We there-
fore suggest that increased BDNF alters the neurotransmitter
profile of these neurons to favor release of acetylcholine, result-
ing in an inhibitory functional output.

Presynaptic action of BDNF

Do these BDNF-induced changes in postsynaptic responses
reflect changes in the presynaptic release of neurotransmit-
from excitatory to inhibitory sympathetic neurotransmission. ters, or changes in the myocyte response to those transmitters?
This result is in contrast to the effects of ciliary neurotrophic We addressed this question by applying neurotransmitter recep-
factor (CNTF), a known cholinergic differentiation factor for tor agonists directly to cocultured myocytes grown in the pres-
sympathetic neurons19. Synaptic transmission was excitatory ence or absence of BDNF. We used a picospritzer (see Methods)
after 3 days of CNTF treatment, then changed to inhibitory to apply either norepinephrine (10 µM) or the cholinergic ago-
transmission after a three-week culture period (Fig. 1b). Thus, nist muscarine chloride (25 µM) for 25, 50 or 75 ms at a pres-
BDNF-induced changes in neurotransmission are rapid com- sure of 10 pounds per square inch (p.s.i.). Measurements of
pared to the actions of CNTF and may be mediated by an inde- myocyte beat rate showed that the responses were within the
pendent mechanism. dynamic range of the agonist concentrations. BDNF did not
The BDNF-dependent, stimulus-evoked decrease in myocyte affect the myocyte response to norepinephrine or muscarine
beat rate was completely abolished by the acetylcholine receptor chloride (Fig. 2), indicating that BDNF does not alter the post-
antagonist atropine (Fig. 1c), implying an effect of BDNF on synaptic response of myocytes to either excitatory or inhibito-
cholinergic neurotransmission. Atropine did not cause a signif- ry neurotransmitters. These results suggest that BDNF alters
icant change in the level of excitatory noradrenergic transmis- presynaptic properties of sympathetic neurons.
sion in control cultures (compare Fig. 1b and 1c), although it
uncovered an excitatory component of neurotransmission in
BDNF-treated cultures. When propranolol was used to block a b
noradrenergic transmission, only a low level of inhibitory cholin-

Fig. 2. BDNF did not alter the postsynaptic response to neurotransmit-

ter. Sympathetic neuron–myocyte cocultures were grown in control
medium (Con), NGF or BDNF. After 3 days (a) 10 µM norepinephrine
or (b) 25 µM muscarine chloride was applied to a beating myocyte for
different pulse durations. Myocyte beat rate was recorded for 3 min
before and after the pulse. The change in myocyte beat rate after drug
application is shown for each pulse duration (mean ± s.e.m., n = 5 for
each condition).
540 nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002

Fig. 3. Acute modulation of neurotransmitter release by BDNF.

(a) Whole-cell recordings were obtained from control cultures and a
the change in myocyte beat rate in response to neuronal stimulation
was measured (Con). BDNF (100 ng/ml) was then perfused into the
dish for 15 min, the same neuron was stimulated and myocyte
response was measured again (BDNF). After a 15-min washout of the
BDNF (Wash), the neuron was again stimulated and the postsynaptic
response measured. Values are given as mean ± s.e.m., n = 7; *, acute
BDNF treatment significantly different from control (P < 0.02). (b) The
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

switch to inhibitory transmission was blocked by 1 µM atropine

(mean ± s.e.m., n = 7). (c) Dose–response curve for the cholinergic
switch induced by 15-min application of BDNF (mean ± s.e.m., n = 5
at each concentration).
Cholinergic effects of BDNF are rapid
We have previously shown that NGF acutely (within 15 min-
utes) promotes noradrenergic transmission between sympa-
thetic neurons and myocytes 5. Here, by exposing excitatory
connections to a short pulse of BDNF and measuring myocyte
response to neuronal stimulation, we tested the hypothesis that
BDNF rapidly modulates cholinergic release. After the cultures
were grown for three days in the control condition, we identified
a neuron in close proximity to a beating myocyte. We stimu-
lated the neuron and recorded the excitatory response of the
myocyte. We then perfused BDNF into the dish for 15 minutes
and stimulated the neuron again. There was a dramatic change c
to an inhibitory postsynaptic response after the 15-minute
BDNF application (Fig. 3a). This switch was reversible, as
shown by the partial recovery of an excitatory postsynaptic
response after a 15-minute washout of the BDNF. The rapidity
and reversibility of the BDNF effect indicate that the release
properties of the cholinergic vesicle pool can be rapidly modu-
lated and that a non-transcriptional mechanism mediates
BDNF-induced changes in neurotransmitter release.
Inhibition after acute BDNF perfusion was blocked by the addi-
tion of atropine to the bath solution (Fig. 3b), confirming that
BDNF caused an acute increase in cholinergic transmission within
15 minutes. The acute effect of BDNF was dose dependent, with a
shift to predominantly inhibitory transmission between 50 and
75 ng/ml BDNF (Fig. 3c). This dose–response curve is decidedly supports sympathetic neuron survival via activation of the TrkA
steep in the 50–75 ng/ml range. Although the reasons for this are receptor20. Moreover, ectopic expression of TrkB in sympathetic
not clear, it suggests that factors, possibly postsynaptic, other than cells also triggers a survival response21. Thus, if BDNF regulates
the total amount of acetylcholine and norepinephrine released con- synaptic function by activation of any Trk receptor, it should
tribute to the overall level of myocyte excitation and inhibition. also provide trophic support for the sympathetic neurons.
Because Trk-mediated neuron survival requires a lower dose of
p75 regulation of cholinergic transmission neurotrophin than Trk-mediated synaptic regulation5, we rea-
To investigate whether BDNF acts through Trk receptors to acute- soned that a survival response to BDNF would indicate activa-
ly promote cholinergic release, we included K252a, an inhibitor tion of a Trk-mediated signaling pathway21. In the absence of
of Trk receptor tyrosine kinases, during acute BDNF treatments. NGF, however, BDNF did not support the survival of cultured
BDNF continued to promote an inhibitory postsynaptic response sympathetic neurons (Fig. 4b). We therefore conclude that the
within 15 minutes in this condition (Fig. 4a). In previous studies5 actions of BDNF on sympathetic neurons in these cultures are
and in parallel experiments (Fig. 4a), K252a blocked NGF-medi- not mediated through a Trk-dependent pathway. Furthermore,
ated potentiation of excitatory synaptic transmission, revealing BDNF did not decrease the survival response of sympathetic
an NGF-dependent, stimulus-induced inhibition of myocyte beat neurons in the presence of NGF, indicating that the synaptic
rate. Thus, TrkA mediates NGF-dependent synaptic potentia- effects of BDNF are not mediated through cell death pathways
tion, and in the absence of Trk signaling a second NGF signaling associated with the p75 receptor22.
pathway seems to promote inhibitory transmission. Together In the absence of a Trk-mediated pathway, these data suggest
with the inability of K252a to block BDNF-dependent inhibito- a role for p75 in modulating cholinergic transmission. We there-
ry transmission, these data support a model for a non-Trk-medi- fore overexpressed human p75 specifically in sympathetic neu-
ated rapid change in cholinergic release and suggest a role for the rons in neuron–myocyte cocultures. Overexpression of p75
p75 receptor in the regulation of cholinergic transmission. protein was confirmed by immunostaining and by co-expression
Further evidence for a non–Trk-mediated pathway for cholin- of a yellow fluorescent protein (YFP) marker (Fig. 5a and b).
ergic regulation comes from BDNF survival experiments. NGF After 3 days, YFP controls showed excitatory neurotransmission

nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002 541


Fig. 4. Trk-independent effects of BDNF. (a) Myocytes showed an

a increase in beat rate during neuronal stimulation in the absence or
presence of K252a (200 nM). After an excitatory neuron–myocyte
pair was found (Stim 1), either NGF (50 ng/ml) or BDNF (100 ng/ml)
was perfused into the bath in the presence of K252a for 15 min, and
the same neuron was stimulated again (Stim 2). With K252a in the
bath, both NGF and BDNF produced a net change to inhibitory
transmission upon repeated stimulation of the neuron (mean ±
s.e.m., n ≥ 6 for each condition; *, P < 0.02 as compared with
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

matched control). (b) BDNF neither supported the survival (in the
absence of NGF) nor triggered the death (in the presence of NGF)
of cultured sympathetic neurons. Survival is expressed as the per-
centage of neurons counted at plating that were alive at each time
point (mean ± s.e.m., n = 3).

cells continued to show an evoked increase in myocyte beat

b rate after acute BDNF treatment, whereas wild-type controls
showed inhibitory transmission after the same treatment.
These data conclusively identify p75 as a regulator of acetyl-
choline release from sympathetic neurons. Together with evi-
dence implicating TrkA in the regulation of noradrenergic
transmission5, these results suggest that multiple signaling
pathways control the pattern of neurotransmitter release in
developing sympathetic neurons.
A number of signaling pathways downstream of the p75
receptor have been identified, including the activation of
sphingomyelinase, which leads to the generation of
ceramide1. We investigated the p75-mediated ceramide path-
way by acutely treating neuron–myocyte cocultures for 15
minutes with C2-ceramide, a membrane-permeant ceramide
to connected myocytes (Fig. 5e). In contrast, p75-overexpress- analog that mimics the mobilization of ceramide following p75
ing neurons showed inhibitory transmission, even in the absence activation27. A 15-minute exposure to C2-ceramide resulted in a
of exogenous BDNF, indicating that p75 is involved in the regu- stimulus-evoked inhibition in myocyte beat rate (Fig. 6b). In
lation of cholinergic transmission. control experiments, neuronal stimulation elicited an increase
As cultures expressing human p75 contained only 5 ng/ml in myocyte beat rate after a 15-minute treatment with C2-dihy-
NGF, the switch to an inhibitory connection raised the possibil- droceramide, an inactive ceramide compound. The effect of the
ity of ligand-independent signaling through the overexpressed C2-ceramide treatment cannot be explained by TrkA activation
p75 receptor. Such ligand-independent signaling has been pre- of the ceramide pathway because ceramide-induced TrkA acti-
viously suggested for the intracellular domain of p75 (ref. 23). vation has not been observed within the 15-minute time frame
We therefore examined myocyte responses following the expres- used in our experiments28. Furthermore, the effects of the acute
sion of a mutant p75 (p75-105) deficient in ligand binding24,25 ceramide treatment recapitulated the timing of acute BDNF
(Fig. 5c and d). We examined eight connected neuron–myocyte application (Fig. 3a), consistent with a role for p75 in rapid
pairs expressing mutant p75 in the neuron. Four of the eight changes in synaptic release.
showed inhibitory transmission upon neuronal stimulation (aver-
age change in myocyte beat rate, –9.6 ± 1.4 beats/min), whereas DISCUSSION
the other four showed excitatory transmission (average change Sympathetic neurons modulate myocyte beat rate through activ-
in myocyte beat rate, 9.8 ± 2.5 beats/min). This resulted in an ity-evoked release of neurotransmitter. Here we show that cul-
average change in myocyte beat rate midway between excitation tured neonatal sympathetic neurons rapidly switched between
and inhibition (Fig. 5e). Post-hoc examination of p75-105 excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmission in response to neu-
immunostaining in two neurons, one showing an inhibitory rotrophins. This change in the functional output of sympathetic
response and the other an excitatory response, revealed similar- transmission reflected an increase in stimulus-induced cholin-
ly high levels of p75-105 expression. Thus, though p75-105 could ergic transmission that was mediated presynaptically through the
mediate a switch to inhibitory transmission, the effect was not p75 receptor. Activation of the p75 signaling pathway—by BDNF
as complete as that seen for the wild-type construct. This sug- treatment, p75 overexpression or activation of the ceramide sig-
gests that overexpressed p75 may have both ligand-dependent nal transduction pathway—resulted in increased cholinergic
and ligand-independent components. Furthermore, the bimodal transmission and activity-evoked inhibition of myocyte respons-
distribution of excitatory and inhibitory connections is consis- es. BDNF did not mediate a change to synaptic inhibition in cul-
tent with the idea suggested by the dose–response curve (Fig. 3c) tures derived from p75–/– mice, further implicating p75 in the
of a sharp transition between these two states. regulation of cholinergic transmission. These results suggest that
Further evidence for a regulatory role of p75 comes from cotransmission of norepinephrine and acetylcholine can be
analysis of the effect of BDNF in cultures derived from p75–/– dynamically regulated in developing sympathetic neurons by tar-
mice26. In these cultures, p75-deficient sympathetic neurons get-derived factors that modulate the release properties of dif-
formed excitatory connections to myocytes (Fig. 6a), and p75–/– ferent neurotransmitter pools.

542 nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002


Fig. 5. Overexpression of the p75 receptor induced inhibitory neuro-

transmission. (a, b) A neuron cotransfected with YFP and human p75
a b
(white arrows) overexpressed the p75 protein as detected by p75
immunofluorescence. (a) YFP fluorescence of the transfected neuron;
(b) p75 immunoreactivity in the same neuron (white arrow). Non-
transfected neurons in the same field showed lower endogenous p75
expression (white arrowhead). Exposure time, 200 ms; scale bar, 20 µm.
(c, d) A neuron cotransfected with YFP and p75-105 (white arrows).
(c) YFP fluorescence; (d) p75 immunoreactivity. Non-transfected neu-
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

rons showing lower p75 immunoreactivity are marked with a white

arrowhead (exposure time, 500 ms). (e) Myocyte response to neuronal c d
stimulation was measured for YFP vector–transfected neurons
(Control), YFP-labeled neurons co-expressing wild-type human p75
(p75) or YFP-labeled neurons co-expressing the mutant human p75-105.
Mean ± s.e.m., n = 4 for control, n = 4 for p75, n = 8 for p75-105; *,
P < 0.001 compared with control.

TrkA and p75 activation

Although our data support a role for p75 in promoting cholin- e
ergic release, previous studies have implicated TrkA activation in
the potentiation of noradrenergic transmission5. How might acti-
vation of these two receptors lead to divergent downstream
effects? Trk and p75 signaling pathways are known to interact,
with p75 enhancing TrkA signaling when the two receptors are
co-activated29,30. In the absence of Trk signaling, p75 activates
cell death pathways31, an action which can be blocked by Trk acti-
vation32. Thus, it appears that p75 has the potential to regulate
events in both Trk-dependent and Trk-independent ways. The
recent observation that proneurotrophins (the initial secreted
form of neurotrophins) act as specific, high-affinity ligands for
p75 raises further possibilities of Trk-independent p75 activity
during the modulation of neuronal function33. Our experiments
indicate that p75 mediates specific cellular responses in the pres-
ence of low-level TrkA activation and that the relative ratio of
Trk and p75 signaling can affect the functional output of sym- 100 ng/ml BDNF), only a small decrease in neuronal number is
pathetic neurotransmission. This model is in accordance with seen22. Notably, more cell death occurred in BDNF-treated cul-
the finding that BDNF activation of p75 shifts the functional out- tures in the presence of KCl, a condition in which Trk receptors
put of sympathetic survival pathways even in the presence of low- are not activated22. The lack of such cell death in our cultures
level TrkA activation22. may also reflect differences in culture conditions, differences in
In our coculture system, BDNF treatment did not lead to a degree of p75 expression or a stronger co-activation of TrkA in
cell death response but rather to local changes in synaptic func- our cultures. Thus, within a range of TrkA and p75 signaling that
tion. BDNF signaling through p75 has previously been shown to supports neuronal survival, the balance of signaling through these
trigger the death of sympathetic neurons, but in a condition close- receptors regulates the neurotransmitter profile of developing
ly resembling that used in our experiments (5 ng/ml NGF and synaptic connections.

Fig. 6. Activation of p75 signaling pathways promotes inhibitory transmission. (a) After identifying a connected neuron–myocyte pair, the aver-
age response of a myocyte to neuronal stimulation was measured in cultures obtained from either p75+/+ or p75–/– mice (Con). BDNF was then
added to the bath for 15 min and the stimulus-induced
myocyte response measured again (BDNF). BDNF did not
promote cholinergic transmission in p75–/– mouse sympa-
thetic cocultures (p75+/+, n = 4; p75–/–, n = 6; *, P < 0.03
compared with control). (b) Acute application of C2-
ceramide resulted in a net change to inhibitory trans-
mission. Neuron–myocyte pairs showing an excitatory
connection were perfused with 20 µM C2-ceramide or
C2-dihydroceramide (control) for 15 min, then myocyte
response to neuronal stimulation was measured. In
some experiments, 1 µM atropine was included to
block cholinergic transmission. Mean ± s.e.m., n = 5 for
each condition. Responses of myocytes treated with
C2-ceramide were significantly different from those of
controls and those of myocytes treated with C2-
ceramide + atropine (P < 0.001).

nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002 543


Regulation of co-release of multiple neurotransmitters taining 5 ng/ml 2.5S NGF (Upstate Biotech, Lake Placid, New York) as
A role for p75 has been established in the KCl-induced release of described5. After 1 day in culture, 1 µM cytosine arabinofuranoside
dopamine from rat mesencephalic neurons34, demonstrating that (AraC; Sigma, St. Louis, Missouri) was added to the dishes to stop cell
p75, as well as Trk receptors, can regulate neurotransmitter division. Under these conditions, AraC does not have an effect on the
survival or function of cultured sympathetic neurons49,50. Where indi-
release. In other experiments, NGF-induced release of glutamate
cated, the medium was supplemented either with 100 ng/ml BDNF (gift
from cerebellar granule cells was not blocked by K252a, suggest- from Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, Tarrytown, New York), 10 ng/ml CNTF
ing a possible further role for p75 in non-evoked release of neu- (R&D Systems, Minneapolis, Minnesota) or 50 ng/ml NGF (final con-
rotransmitter35. Here we show that p75 signaling modulated centration), or with 20 µM C2-ceramide or C2-dihydroceramide (Bio-
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

action potential–mediated synaptic release and, moreover, reg- mol, Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania).
ulated the differential release of distinct neurotransmitter pools For survival assays, neurons were plated at 10,000 cells per well in a
within individual sympathetic neurons. The regulation of 24-well dish. Neurotrophins were added at the time of plating. Percent
cotransmitter release by different target-derived factors may survival was calculated by comparing the number of surviving neurons at
increase the modulatory complexity of sympathetic neurons, 24, 48 and 72 h after plating with the number of neurons that were on
the dish 4–6 h after plating. Duplicate wells for each condition were
indicating that TrkA and p75 signaling helps establish local pat-
counted for a minimum of three experiments per condition.
terns of neurotransmitter release. Human p75 was expressed in cocultures using a Helios Gene Gun (Bio-
The observation that neurotrophin signaling through p75 Rad, Hercules, California). Cells were transfected 1 day after plating either
preferentially promoted the release of acetylcholine raises the with pJPA5-CD8-YFP or pNF314-CD8-GFP (control, gift from G. Banker),
question of how cholinergic and noradrenergic transmitter pools or with pJPA5-CD8-YFP and pCMV5A, an expression vector containing a
are segregated. In sympathetic neurons, acetylcholine is pack- human p75 cDNA (gift from M. Chao). A mutant p75 encoding a p75 pro-
aged in small synaptic vesicles, whereas norepinephrine can be tein deficient in ligand binding (p75-50, gift from M. Chao) was subcloned
found in both large dense-core vesicles and small synaptic vesi- into pCMV5 to generate p75-105. Expression of p75 was detected by stain-
cles14,36,37. It has been suggested that some vesicles might package ing with an anti-p75 antibody that recognized the intracellular domain of
both rat and human p75 protein (Promega, Madison, Wisconsin).
acetylcholine and norepinephrine together38, but analyses of the
localization of cholinergic and catecholaminergic transporters Measurement of functional postsynaptic response. Cultures were visu-
suggest that these transmitters are segregated to discrete pools of alized using an inverted Olympus IX70 microscope (Olympus, Melville,
small vesicles39. New York) with differential interference contrast (DIC) optics. Whole-cell
Experiments using latrotoxin to stimulate vesicle release sug- recordings were obtained using 3–4 MΩ patch electrodes as described5
gest that dense-core and small clear vesicles may be compart- from sympathetic neurons that appeared to be connected to a beating
mentalized differently within synaptic sites and have different myocyte. Synaptic transmission was examined by measuring the func-
calcium requirements for release40. Both Trk and p75 activation tional postsynaptic response of a myocyte to neuronal stimulation. This
are associated with influx of intracellular calcium41, although the was achieved by measuring the stimulus-induced change in myocyte beat
calcium pools mobilized differ for the two receptors42. Thus, the rate5. A baseline beat rate was counted for 4 min before the presynaptic
neuron was stimulated. Then the beat rate was counted for the duration
dynamics of calcium entry may be modulated as a consequence
of the 3-min stimulation. Further manipulations and analyses were car-
of differential Trk and p75 activation, leading to differential neu- ried out on neuron–myocyte pairs showing a functional connection5. In
rotransmitter release. Our observation that p75 signaling pro- some cultures, after the initial stimulation, BDNF or ceramide com-
moted the release of cholinergic vesicles is consistent with an pounds were perfused into the dish for 15 min and myocyte beat rate
effect on the mobilization of different vesicle pools. However, was measured during a second stimulation. BDNF was then washed out
further work is required to fully understand the mechanisms for 15 min and the functional assay repeated. Atropine (1 µM) or pro-
underlying this specificity. pranolol (10 µM) was included in the bath solution of some dishes to
These results also have general implications for understanding block cholinergic or noradrenergic transmission respectively.
the regulation of cotransmission in the nervous system. Although In some experiments, cells were continuously perfused with 200 nM
K252a (Kamiya Biomedical, Seattle, Washington) for the length of the
it is widely accepted that some CNS neurons can synthesize more
experiment. After a connected neuron–myocyte pair was found, 50 ng/ml
than one classical neurotransmitter43,44, current dogma holds NGF or 100 ng/ml BDNF was washed into the bath for 15 min, and the
that they secrete only a single neurotransmitter45. Arguing against stimulation protocol was repeated. Cultures used for K252a experiments
this view, recent studies demonstrate co-release of two classical were grown in either 5 ng/ml (acute BDNF experiments) or 50 ng/ml
neurotransmitters in a number of central systems46–48, suggesting NGF (acute NGF experiments). We had previously established that acute
that cotransmission may have a previously unrecognized role in modulation was not affected by the growth concentration of NGF5.
the regulation of complex circuitry in the nervous system. Our Neurotransmitter receptor agonists were applied to beating myocytes
work in the peripheral nervous system provides evidence for a using a Picospritzer II (General Valve Corp., East Hanover, New Jersey) and
mechanism through which postsynaptic factors could regulate standard patch pipettes. Myocytes were exposed to either 10 µM norepi-
the differential release of cotransmitters to increase the modula- nephrine (Research Biochemicals International, Natick, Massachusetts) or
25 µM muscarine chloride (Sigma, St. Louis, Missouri). The agonist solu-
tory complexity of neuronal circuits.
tions were puffed onto the myocytes at 10 p.s.i. for 25, 50 or 75 ms. Myocyte
beat rate was counted for 3 min before and 3 min after the application.
Neonatal sympathetic neurons and ventricular myocytes. Cocultures of Statistics. Significance was analyzed by Student’s t-tests or ANOVA fol-
neonatal sympathetic neurons and cardiac ventricular myocytes were lowed by post-hoc tests using StatView (Abacus Concepts, Berkeley,
prepared and cultured essentially as described12 from neonatal Simon- California) software.
sen white rats (Simonsen Laboratories, Gilroy, California) and p75–/– or
wild-type mice (Jackson Laboratories, Bar Harbor, Maine). Animal pro-
tocols were approved by the Brandeis University Institutional Animal Acknowledgments
Care and Use Committee (IACUC). Freshly isolated sympathetic neu- We thank G. Turrigiano, L. Griffith, E. Marder and P. Sengupta for critical
rons (7,500–15,000 neurons) were plated with cardiac myocytes (50,000 reading of the manuscript, J. Hinterneder for helpful discussions, J. Mead and E.
myocytes) obtained from the same animals and cultured for 3–4 days or Nokes for technical assistance and G. Banker, M. Chao and B. Hempstead for
3 weeks before analysis. The cells were cultured in 2× MAH food con- help with reagents. This work was supported by grants from the US National

544 nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002


Institutes of Health (R01 NS40168) and the Whitehall Foundation to S.J.B. The 24. Yan, H. & Chao, M. V. Disruption of cysteine-rich repeats of the p75 nerve
Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences supported this work through a growth factor receptor leads to loss of ligand binding. J. Biol. Chem. 266,
12099–12104 (1991).
Pew Scholars Award to S.J.B. 25. Esposito, D. et al. The cytoplasmic and transmembrane domains of the p75
and Trk A receptors regulate high affinity binding to nerve growth factor.
Competing interests statement J. Biol. Chem. 276, 32687–32695 (2001).
26. Lee, F.-F. et al. Targeted mutation of the gene encoding the low affinity NGF
The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests. receptor p75 leads to deficits in the peripheral sensory nervous system. Cell
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RECEIVED 11 MARCH; ACCEPTED 10 APRIL 2002 27. Dobrowsky, R. T., Werner, M. H., Castellino, A. M., Chao, M. V. & Hannun, Y.
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nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002 545


Ethanol elicits and potentiates

nociceptor responses via the
vanilloid receptor-1
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

M. Trevisani1,*, D. Smart2,*, M. J. Gunthorpe2,*, M. Tognetto3, M. Barbieri1, B. Campi3,

S. Amadesi1, J. Gray2, J. C. Jerman4, S. J. Brough4, D. Owen2, G. D. Smith2, A. D. Randall2,
S. Harrison1, A. Bianchi3, J. B. Davis2 and P. Geppetti1

1 Department of Experimental and Clinical Medicine, Headache Center, University of Ferrara, Via Fossato di Mortara 19, 44100 Ferrara, Italy

2 Neurology-CEDD, GlaxoSmithKline, Third Avenue, Harlow CM19 5AW, UK

3 Department of Pharmacology, University of Catania, Viale Andrea Doria 86, 95123 Catania, Italy

4 Discovery Research, GlaxoSmithKline, Third Avenue, Harlow CM19 5AW, UK

* These authors contributed equally to this work.

Correspondence should be addressed to J.B.D. (

Published online: 29 April 2002 DOI: 10.1038/nn852

The vanilloid receptor-1 (VR1) is a heat-gated ion channel that is responsible for the burning
sensation elicited by capsaicin. A similar sensation is reported by patients with esophagitis when
they consume alcoholic beverages or are administered alcohol by injection as a medical treatment.
We report here that ethanol activates primary sensory neurons, resulting in neuropeptide release or
plasma extravasation in the esophagus, spinal cord or skin. Sensory neurons from trigeminal or dor-
sal root ganglia as well as VR1-expressing HEK293 cells responded to ethanol in a concentration-
dependent and capsazepine-sensitive fashion. Ethanol potentiated the response of VR1 to capsaicin,
protons and heat and lowered the threshold for heat activation of VR1 from ∼42ºC to ∼34ºC. This
provides a likely mechanistic explanation for the ethanol-induced sensory responses that occur at
body temperature and for the sensitivity of inflamed tissues to ethanol, such as might be found in
esophagitis, neuralgia or wounds.

The symptoms of patients suffering from persistent trigeminal to establish whether a VR1-mediated mechanism may provide an
neuralgia may be alleviated by the induction of peripheral nerve explanation for the painful burning sensations described above.
block with perineural injections of alcohol. This procedure is ini-
tially painful due to an intense burning sensation1. Similarly, RESULTS
patients with esophagitis provide anecdotal evidence that the con- Neuropeptide release and plasma extravasation
sumption of alcoholic beverages causes a burning pain propor- VR1 is expressed on a subset of peptidergic nociceptors that are
tional to the alcoholic strength of the drink. In addition, the able to signal via the release of neuropeptides. Consequently, the
burning pain produced by the application of alcoholic tinctures activation of VR1 leads to release of the neuropeptides substance-
to skin wounds is familiar to all. Common to all these phenome- P (SP) and calcitonin gene–related peptide (CGRP)8. To inves-
na is a “burning” sensation, which raises the possibility that tigate the events underlying the generation of “burning”
ethanol may produce activity in the nociceptors responsible for responses to ethanol, we first measured the release of SP from
sensing noxious heat. Consequently, we have studied the effect of dorsal spinal cord (Fig. 1a and b), esophagus (Fig. 1c and d) and
ethanol upon vanilloid receptor-1 (VR1)2,3, which has been iden- skin (Fig. 1e and f), where central and peripheral endings of pri-
tified previously as a receptor for noxious heat2. VR1—which is mary afferents terminate. Ethanol (0.1–3%, equivalent to
predominantly expressed in afferent Aδ- and C-fibers2—is a poly- 0.017–0.51 M) caused a concentration-dependent release of SP-
modal receptor4 that is activated by noxious heat (above ∼42ºC), like immunoreactivity (SP-LI) from the tissues, including skin
extracellular acidic pH and some lipids—for example, anan- (where exposure to similar concentrations of ethanol can be
damide5,6—or 12- or 15-HPETE7. It is plausible that irritants that expected during various treatments). Pretreatment with cap-
elicit a “burning” sensation may do so by activating VR1 or anoth- saicin or removal of extracellular Ca2+ ions practically abolished
er thermoreceptor. The studies we describe here, which used a the responses.
variety of established methods for studying sensory neurons— The inhibitory effect of capsaicin pretreatment indicated that
including the measurement of neuropeptide release, elevation of ethanol causes neuropeptide release from the central (dorsal
cytoplasmic Ca2+ concentrations in recombinant and native cell spinal cord) and peripheral (esophagus and skin) terminals of
systems, and electrophysiological recording—were done in order capsaicin-sensitive nociceptors in C- and Aδ-fibers, which are

546 nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002


Fig. 1. Ethanol-induced neurotransmitter release and plasma extravasa-

tion. Release of SP-LI from (a) rat dorsal spinal cord, (c) esophagus and
a b (e) skin was induced by increasing concentrations of ethanol. The
effects of capsaicin (CAP) pretreatment (10 µM for 60 min before
ethanol addition), Ca2+-free medium plus 1 mM EGTA (–Ca2+) and 10
µM capsazepine (CZP) on the SP-LI release that was induced by 3%
ethanol from (b) rat dorsal spinal cord, (d) esophagus and (f) skin were
also assessed. Increases in plasma extravasation that were induced by
(g) intra-esophageal instillation of 50% ethanol or (h) intravenous SP
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

(0.1 nmol/kg) as well as the effect of 1 mg/kg of intravenous tachykinin

NK1 receptor antagonist SR140333 (SR) or intra-esophageal instillation
of 100 µM capsazepine were also analyzed. Data are mean ± s.e.m. of at
c d least five experiments; *, P < 0.05.

endothelial NK1 receptors. In the rat esophagus, a substantial

increase in Evans blue extravasation was caused by both ethanol
(100 µl, 50% ethanol intra-esophageal instillation) and SP (0.1
nmol/kg, intravenously). The NK 1 receptor antagonist
SR140333 significantly inhibited both responses, whereas cap-
sazepine blocked only the effect of ethanol (Fig. 1g and h). Plas-
ma extravasation (6.3 ± 1.1 ng/mg, n = 5) induced by
e f intra-esophageal capsaicin (100 µl, 1 mM) was also inhibited by
capsazepine (2.3 ± 0.4 ng/mg, n = 5, P < 0.01). These data indi-
cate that ethanol stimulated the release of tachykinins, and sub-
sequent plasma extravasation, via VR1 activation.

Responses of primary sensory neurons

The release of neuropeptides and the desensitizing effect of cap-
saicin strongly suggested that the effect of ethanol upon esopha-
gus, skin and dorsal spinal cord was mediated by peptidergic
nociceptors that express VR1. To further dissect these sensory
responses to ethanol, we studied primary neurons isolated from
trigeminal and dorsal root ganglia (DRG), cultured at 37°C, using
g h Ca2+ imaging (Fig. 2). In trigeminal ganglion neurons (TGNs),
ethanol caused a concentration-dependent increase in cytosolic
Ca2+ ion concentration ([Ca2+]i) (Fig. 2a), which was inhibited by
capsazepine (10 µM) (Fig. 2b and c). A similar but less intense
response to ethanol was observed in DRG neurons; this was also
inhibited by capsazepine (Table 1). Ninety-eight per cent of the
TGN and DRG cells grown in culture responded to capsaicin
(0.1–1 µM), which indicated that these were C- or Aδ-fiber noci-
ceptors8. All the cells that responded to ethanol also responded
the major known source of SP in sensory neurons. The role to capsaicin (data not shown). In contrast, a non-VR1-expressing
played by VR1 in this response was supported by the require- cell type, human hepatoma (Hep G2) cells, showed a small
ment for extracellular Ca2+ ions, which suggested the involve- increase in [Ca2+]i in response to ethanol; however, this minor
ment of a Ca2+-permeable ion channel, and by inhibition of the response was not affected by capsazepine (Table 1). A propor-
response by the VR1 antagonist capsazepine9 (10 µM). As well tion of the neuronal response to ethanol was capsazepine-insen-
as antagonizing VR110, capsazepine is reported to inhibit volt- sitive, which indicated that ethanol may exert some effects via
age-gated calcium channels. However, capsazepine had no effect additional, VR1-independent mechanisms. Ethanol also facili-
on KCl (80 mM)–mediated SP-LI release from the dorsal spinal tated VR1 responses to other agonists. Ethanol 1% (0.17 M)
cord (75 ± 7 fmol/g/20 min for capsazepine and 78 ± 8 fmol/g/20 increased the efficacy (Emax relative to control of 1.15 ± 0.03,
min for vehicle; in both cases, n = 5). These data indicated it was n = 4, P < 0.01), but not the potency (pEC50 values of 7.15 ± 0.06
unlikely that inhibition of voltage-gated channels contributed to versus 7.13 ± 0.05), of capsaicin-induced Ca2+ responses in DRG
the inhibitory effect of capsazepine observed in our experiments. cells (Fig. 2d).
In addition, ethanol did not appear to be neurotoxic: capsaicin
(1 µM) caused the release of SP-LI after pretreatment of dorsal Recombinant VR1 responses
spinal cord with 3% (0.51 M) ethanol (124 ± 10 fmol/g/20 min, The responses observed in isolated neurons confirmed that the
n = 5) or vehicle (145 ± 12 fmol/g/20 min, n = 5). Similar results effect of ethanol upon ex vivo tissue preparations was mediated
were obtained for ethanol-induced release of a second sensory via the neurons in those tissues. However, both the native sys-
neuropeptide, CGRP (data not shown). tems express a diverse complement of neuronal receptors that
In various rat tissues, including esophagus11, stimulation might contribute to an ethanol-evoked response. If VR1 plays a
of primary afferents and the subsequent release of SP causes primary role in the ethanol-mediated response, as is suggested
an increase in plasma extravasation via the activation of by inhibition of the response by low extracellular Ca2+ concen-

nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002 547


Fig. 2. Ethanol stimulates and potentiates native and

recombinant VR1 responses. (a) Typical traces that
2+ c d
visualize [Ca ]i during exposure to ethanol and cap-
saicin, at 37ºC, in cultured TGNs that were pretreated
with (a) vehicle or (b) capsazepine. (c) Pooled data from
experiments similar to those shown in (a). Eighty neurons
were analyzed; *P < 0.01 versus vehicle. (d) Cytoplasmic
[Ca ]i was monitored in DRG cells before and after the
addition of capsaicin (0.1 nM to 10 µM) in the absence
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

() or presence () of 1% ethanol. Responses were mea-

sured as peak increases in fluorescence minus basal e f g h
amounts; they are expressed relative to a 1 µM capsaicin
control (n = 4). (e) Ethanol induced a concentration-
dependent Ca2+ response. [Ca2+]i was monitored at
37ºC with Fura-2 in hVR1-expressing HEK293 (n = 86)
and wild-type (Wt) HEK293 (n = 148) cells. Responses
were measured relative to the peak response to 5 µM
ionomycin. Ethanol enhancement of Ca2+ response to
(f) capsaicin or (g) protons. [Ca2+]i was monitored with
Fluo-3 in hVR1-expressing HEK293 cells before and after
the addition of capsaicin (0.1 nM to 10 µM) or HCl
(0.4–1.5 mM) in the absence () or presence of 0.1% (), 0.3% () or 1% () ethanol. Responses were measured as peak increases in fluorescence
minus basal amounts and were expressed relative to 100 nM capsaicin (n = 6). (h) The ethanol-induced Ca2+ response is VR1-mediated. Fluo-
3–loaded hVR1-expressing HEK293 cells were preincubated for 30 min with capsazepine (CZP, 1 µM), ruthenium red (RR, 0.3 µM), Rp-cAMP (Ch.Cl,
10 µM), H89 (10 µM), BIM (1 µM), Ro318220 (10 µM) or chelerythrine chloride (10 µM). Rp-cAMP, H89, BIM, Ro318220 and Ch.Cl were added to
block kinase signaling pathways. Changes in [Ca2+]i were monitored before and after the addition of 3% ethanol. Responses were measured as peak
increases in fluorescence minus basal amounts and were expressed relative to a 100 nM capsaicin control (n = 3–8).

tration or capsazepine, then a VR1-dependent response to ethanol—were seen in VR1-expressing cells. The highest con-
ethanol should be obtained in a recombinant system that express- centration tested, 3% ethanol, caused a 165 ± 21% (n = 10)
es VR1. At 37°C, 0.1–3% (0.017–0.51 M) ethanol caused a increase in the capsaicin-gated current (Fig. 3b). Under these
marked concentration-dependent [Ca2+]i increase in human VR1 conditions, in which cells were maintained at room temperature,
(hVR1)-expressing HEK293 cells that was practically absent in ethanol caused no stimulation when applied alone (Fig. 3c). In
wild-type HEK293 cells (Fig. 2e). This showed that VR1 can be contrast, when the fluorimetric imaging plate reader (FLIPR)
activated by ethanol. The effect appeared to be relatively specific platform was used to follow intracellular Ca2+ fluxes, we found
to VR1, as ethanol failed to enhance the endogenous carbachol- that 1% (0.17 M) ethanol increased baseline [Ca2+]i slightly
induced muscarinic Ca2+ response in the same cells (data not (Fig. 2f) and that significant responses to ethanol occurred at
shown). Ethanol also enhanced the Ca2+ response to capsaicin (0.1 37°C (Fig. 2a and e).
nM to 10 µM) in a concentration-dependent manner (Fig. 2f); it These observations may be explained by the suggestion that
increased both the potency and efficacy of capsaicin. Ethanol ethanol is able to potentiate a wide range of VR1 activators,
0.3% (0.051 M) increased the potency of capsaicin from pEC50 including heat. Varying ambient temperature between experi-
8.22 ± 0.03 to 8.76 ± 0.05 (n = 4, P < 0.01) and the efficacy to mental systems might thus explain the changing degree of
1.18 ± 0.02 (P < 0.01). The modulatory effect of ethanol on hVR1 response seen to ethanol alone. Thus, we next established
responses was similarly observed in whole cell patch-clamp whether ethanol had similar effects upon activation of VR1 by
recordings done at 22–24°C (Fig. 3). In control experiments, cap- protons4, the endo-cannabinoid anandamide5,6 and heat (see
saicin alone and capsaicin that was applied with ethanol had no below). Ethanol potentiated the activation of VR1 by protons
effect on wild-type HEK293 cells (n = 7; Fig. 3a), whereas cap- in a concentration-dependent manner analogous to that seen
saicin-gated currents—which were markedly potentiated by with capsaicin and ethanol (Fig. 2g). Ethanol 1% increased the
pEC 50 for protons from 6.26 ± 0.02 to 6.50 ± 0.03
Table 1. TGN and DRG neuron responses to ethanol are inhibited (n = 5, P < 0.01) and the efficacy to 1.18 ± 0.02
by capsazepine. (P < 0.01). The potentiating effect of ethanol was
observed in whole-cell recordings. The application of
Ethanol DRG DRG TGN TGN Hep G2 Hep G2
concentration vehicle CPZ vehicle CPZ vehicle CPZ a pH 6 solution had little effect alone, but did activate
VR1 when 3% (0.51 M) ethanol was coadministered
(Fig. 3e). Similarly, 0.3% ethanol also enhanced the
0.05 M 5±1 2±1 a 8±2 1±1 a 7±2 5±2
(0.3%) anandamide (1 µM)-induced activation of VR1, as
measured by either FLIPR (12,801 ± 1,021 versus 4,625
0.17 M 17 ± 2 7±2 a 23 ± 2 9±2 a 12 ± 2 13 ± 2
(1%) ± 857 fluorescence intensity units (FIU), n = 3,
P < 0.01) or electrophysiology (Fig. 3f). VR1-dependent
0.51 M 32 ± 2 18 ± 2a 38 ± 3 21 ± 3a 17 ± 2 15 ± 3
(3%) effects should be antagonized by recognized VR1 antag-
onists. Both the ethanol-induced Ca 2+ responses
Capsaicin 56 ± 4 9±2 a 71 ± 4 2±2 a ND ND
(Fig. 2e) and current responses to ethanol and capsaicin
Data are shown as a percentage of the control ionomycin response. aP < 0.05 between (Fig. 3a and b) were antagonized by capsazepine (pIC50
cells treated with capsazepine (CPZ, 10 µM) and vehicle (0.01% ethanol) . ND, no data. 6.67 ± 0.02, n = 6) (Figs. 2b, c and 3g) and also by the

548 nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002


a c e g heat-activated current was recruited at a

threshold of ∼42°C; this was accompa-
nied by a large increase in current noise,
which was attributable to the activation
of a channel of high single channel con-
ductance (Fig. 4b). This basal threshold
for VR1 activation at ∼42°C1,3 was con-
sistent with the activity of the endoge-
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

nous heat-receptor in DRG neurons16,17.

b d f h Ethanol 3% caused a large shift in the
threshold of VR1 activation, so that
channel activity attributable to VR1
was observed at temperatures as low
as 34°C. At higher temperatures,
much greater activation of VR1 was
always seen in the presence of ethanol
(Fig. 4b and c).

Fig. 3. Ethanol modulates capsaicin-, anandamide- or proton-gated inward currents recorded from DISCUSSION
hVR1-expressing HEK293 cells. (a) Sample traces that resulted from the application of 500 nM cap- Our data demonstrate the ethanol-
saicin alone (filled bar) or with 3% ethanol (open bar). (b) Percentage potentiation of the 500 nM cap- mediated modulation of VR1 function.
saicin response induced by 0.3–3% ethanol at 22–24ºC (n = 4–10). (c) At 22–24°C, hVR1-expressing Ethanol (0.1–3%) caused the potentia-
HEK293 cells responded to 1 µM capsaicin but not to 3% ethanol (n = 5). (d) Current-voltage rela- tion of VR1 activity produced by vanil-
tionship for capsaicin-gated hVR1 currents and ethanol-potentiated, capsaicin-gated currents that loids, anandamide, protons or heat.
were assessed with a voltage-ramp protocol (–70 to +70 mV in 1 s). The effects of ethanol on the cur-
rent elicited by endogenous VR1 ligands were also examined. (e) Acid (pH 6) was applied alone or
These concentrations were lower than
with 3% ethanol and then blocked by 10 µM capsazepine (CZP); data from three samples were pooled. those found in the alcoholic beverages
(f) Anandamide (AEA, 1 µM) was applied alone or with 3% ethanol; data from five samples were or medications (up to 30% ethanol) to
pooled. The antagonistic effect of (g) 10 µM capsazepine (hatched bar, n = 4) and (h) 10 µM ruthe- which wounds or damaged tissues may
nium red (RR, shaded bar, n = 4) on 3% ethanol potentiated 500 nM capsaicin (filled bar) currents. be exposed18. Shifts in the heat-medi-
(a–h) The vertical current calibration bar corresponds to 200 pA. ated VR1-gating range were consistent
with the induction of VR1 activity at
normal body temperature. This pro-
non-competitive, but less selective, pore-blocker ruthenium vides further evidence that modulatory factors—for example
red (Figs. 2h and 3h). In addition, current–voltage relation- ethanol or bradykinin19—are capable of sensitizing VR1 so that
ships for currents elicited by capsaicin alone or capsaicin and body temperature is sufficient to activate VR1. The ability of
ethanol (Fig. 3d) showed pronounced outward rectification ethanol to affect C- and Aδ-fiber nociceptors is emphasized by
and reversal potentials that were close to 0 mV (–3.7 ± 1.1 mV, its capacity to release SP from the central and peripheral terminals
n = 5), which are characteristics of VR1-mediated conductance. of these neurons and to cause capsazepine-sensitive excitatory
VR1 accounts for the majority of the effect of ethanol on effects in isolated neurons from sensory ganglia. Such a sensiti-
hVR1-expressing HEK293 cells and at least part of ethanol- zation mechanism may contribute to the persistent pain that
evoked responses in primary neurons. Effects of alcohols on the results from inflammatory or neuropathic injury. A further impli-
activity of other ion channels, including nicotinic, GABA and cation of these results is that interpretations of the effects of
glycine receptor channels, have been described12. However, not ethanol on somatic and visceral tissues now require considera-
all membrane proteins are affected; for example, no effect of tion of the potential contributions of VR1. In addition, because
ethanol upon the activity of endogenous muscarinic receptors of the polymodal nature of VR1, these considerations must also
was found, as might have been expected if the effect were medi- take into account the local temperature, pH and presence of any
ated via non-specific effects upon membrane biophysics. There is endogenous activators of VR1. These factors may vary greatly
evidence for the existence of specific alcohol-binding sites13. between normal and damaged or inflamed tissues, whose
Ethanol has also been linked to protein kinase C (PKC) translo- pathologies engage VR1 function20,21.
cation14 and, as PKC activation leads to an increased probability Our data on the VR1-dependent release of neuropeptides
of VR1 opening15, we tested the effect of PKC inhibitors on the from esophagus—together with reports of the upregulation of
ethanol-induced signal (Fig. 2h). We found that these inhibitors VR1 expression in inflamed bowel22 and enhanced sensitivity to
had no effect, which suggests that PKC is not involved. capsaicin in modeled esophagitis23—highlight a possible role of
VR1 in visceral pain, where tissue injury has increased exposure
Effect upon thermal response threshold VR1 of sensory nerve endings. Our findings provide the following
VR1 is widely believed to be a physiological thermosensor capa- mechanistic explanation for the burning pain, described by
ble of converting noxious heat into the depolarization and firing patients, that ethanol evokes18: exposure to ethanol may suffi-
of sensory neurons. The effect of ambient temperature upon the ciently lower the threshold of VR1 receptors, which are recruited
basal response to ethanol alone is noted above. Thus, we deter- by inflammation, so that they become activated at body temper-
mined the effects of ethanol on the temperature responsiveness of ature or via the activators mentioned above19. These parallels
VR1 (Fig. 4). We found that ethanol had no effect on the small, between in vitro experiments and clinical symptoms encourage
heat-induced increases in leak currents in wild-type HEK293 the further study of VR1 for the development of treatments for
(Fig. 4a and c). In hVR1-expressing HEK293 cells, a well defined painful wounds and inflamed tissues.

nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002 549


Fig. 4. Ethanol shifts the threshold for VR1 heat activation. Whole cell
inward currents were induced by a shift (gray bar) in temperature from
24ºC to the indicated temperatures in (a) wild-type HEK293 cells and
(b) hVR1-expressing HEK293 cells in the absence or presence of 3%
(0.51 M) ethanol (open bar). (c) Pooled data from experiments similar b
to those shown in (a) and (b) were used to define the temperature
response profile for heat-evoked currents in wild-type (squares) or
VR1-expressing (circles) cells either in the presence (filled symbols) or
absence (open symbols) of 3% ethanol. Asterisks indicate the lowest
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

temperature at which the VR1 heat-activated current—in the absence

(*) or presence (**) of ethanol—were significantly different (n = 7,
P < 0.05 by Student’s unpaired t-tests) to control recordings for
HEK293 cells.

Peptide-release assays. Thick slices (∼0.4 mm) of the dorsal horn of lum-
bar enlargements of the dorsal spinal cord, esophagus or skin from the
shaved dorsum of rats were stabilized for 60 min in Kreb’s solution at
37°C. Fractions (4 ml) were collected at 10-min intervals into ethanoic
acid (final concentration 2 N) before, during and after administration
of ethanol. Fractions were freeze-dried, reconstituted with assay buffer
and analyzed for CGRP and SP immunoreactivities as described24.

Plasma extravasation. Male Sprague-Dawley rats were anesthetized

(pentobarbital 60 mg/kg, intraperitoneally). A cannula was inserted
into the oral part of the esophagus and the aboral ending of the esoph-
agus was ligatured. One minute after injection of the dye Evans blue Tyrode buffer. A FLIPR was used to monitor cell fluorescence (λex = 488
(30 mg/kg) into the jugular vein, 50% ethanol (100 µl), its vehicle (100 nm, λem = 540 nm) before and after the addition of agonists. Responses
µl of 0.9% saline) or 1 mM capsaicin (100 µl in 5% ethanol) were given were measured as peak minus basal FIU and, where appropriate, were
through the esophageal cannula; alternatively, SP was administered expressed as a fraction of the maximum capsaicin-induced response.
intravenously. Vehicles did not cause any measurable plasma extrava- Curve-fitting and parameter estimation were done with Graph Pad Prism
sation (data not shown). Capsazepine, administered via the esophageal 3.00 (GraphPad Software, San Diego, California).
cannula, intravenous SR140333 or a combination of their vehicles (1%
intra-esophageal ethanol and 10% intravenous DMSO, respectively) Whole cell patch-clamp electrophysiology. All recordings were made
were administered 15 min before the dye was injected. Rats were killed with standard whole-cell patch-clamp methods, as described3; they
5 min after SP or ethanol were administered and the esophagus was were done at room temperature (22–24ºC) unless otherwise stated. The
removed, weighed and incubated in formamide for 24 h at 37°C. extracellular solution consisted of 130 mM NaCl, 5 mM KCl, 2 mM
Extravasated Evans blue was measured spectrophotometrically at 620 CaCl2, 1 mM MgCl2, 30 mM glucose and 25 mM HEPES-NaOH at pH
nm. Ethical approval for animal work was obtained from the local Uni- 7.3. Patch pipettes (resistance 2–5 MΩ) were filled with 140 mM CsCl,
versity of Ferrara ethics committee. 4 mM MgCl 2, 10 mM EGTA and 10 mM HEPES-CsOH at pH 7.3.
Drugs were applied with an automated perfusion device (time for solu-
Cell culture. DRG and TGNs were taken from 1–3-day-old rats and cul- tion exchange ∼30 ms). Temperature jump experiments were done as
tured as described20,24. The human hepatoma cell line (a gift of F. Bernar- described3. Data are presented as mean ± s.e.m.
di, University of Ferrara) was grown in Dulbecco’s modified Eagle’s Ethanol (0.01%), at a concentration that did not produce any
medium/F12. detectable release of neuropeptides or mobilization of calcium (data
not shown), or DMSO (0.1%) vehicles were used for the delivery of
Measurement of changes in [Ca2+]i. [Ca2+]i was determined with the drugs in in vitro studies. Statistical comparisons were made where
Ca2+ -sensitive fluorescent dye Fura-2, which was loaded into Hep G2 appropriate with Student’s t-tests or the ANOVA and Dunnett’s test.
cells or sensory neurons as its acetoxymethylester form (40 min, 37°C).
The bath solution consisted of 1.4 mM CaCl2, 5.4 mM KCl, 0.4 mM
MgSO4, 135 mM NaCl, 5 mM D-glucose, 10 mM HEPES and 0.1% bovine Acknowledgments
serum albumin at pH 7.4. Alternate excitation at 340 nM and 380 nM was We thank C. Farrant and S. Lomax for preparation of artwork. This work was
supplied and the F340/F380 emission ratio recorded with a dynamic image supported in part by ARCA (Padua) and Cofin (MIUIR, Rome).
analysis system (Laboratory Automation 2.0, RCS, Florence, Italy). Ratio
changes were expressed as a percentage of the peak response to iono- Competing interests statement
mycin (5 µM)24. After 10 min of stabilization, responses to increasing The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.
concentrations of ethanol (0.1–3% or 0.017 – 0.51 M) and capsaicin (0.1
µM) were recorded in the presence of capsazepine (10 µM) or its vehicle. RECEIVED 26 NOVEMBER 2001; ACCEPTED 25 MARCH 2002.
In some experiments, plated neurons were pre-exposed to capsaicin (10
µM) for 60 min to desensitize them. [Ca2+]i was also monitored with
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A computational role for slow

conductances: single-neuron
models that measure duration
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

Scott L. Hooper, Einat Buchman and Kevin H. Hobbs

Neuroscience Program, Department of Biological Sciences, Ohio University, Athens, Ohio 45701 USA
Correspondence should be addressed to S.L.H. (

Published online: 29 April 2002, DOI: 10.1038/nn838

Humans effortlessly interpret speech and music, whose patterns can contain sound durations up to
thousands of milliseconds. How nervous systems measure such long durations is unclear. We show here
that model neurons containing physiological slow conductances are ‘naturally’ sensitive to duration,
replicate known duration-sensitive neurons and can be ‘tuned’ to respond to a wide range of specific
durations. In addition, these models reproduce several other properties of duration-sensitive neurons
not selected for in model construction. These data, and the widespread presence of slow conductances
in nervous systems, suggest that slow conductances might play a major role in duration measurement.

To understand the problems the nervous system faces in analyzing We present a hypothesis that obviates the need for delayed
speech and music, consider the song ‘Y.M.C.A.’ (Fig. 1). Two mea- synaptic excitation. We propose that duration-sensitive neurons
sures of the song’s chorus are shown both in musical notation possess currents that slowly change during sound-induced inhi-
(line 1) and in an alternative representation in which rectangles bition, and the neurons therefore fire only after certain sound dura-
denote the time and duration of each note (lines 2–4). The song’s tions. Models that reproduce the three types of duration-sensitive
beat, a repeating series of bass drum (~90 Hz) eighth notes, is neurons can be constructed using physiological slow conductances.
shown only in the rectangle representation (line 5); this is the Furthermore, although this was not a goal of our model con-
rhythm people dance to. Almost all the song’s information is con- struction, these models also reproduce several other properties of
tained in the non-repetitive sequence of long-duration sounds (in duration-sensitive neurons not selected for in model construction.
the original recorded version of ‘Y.M.C.A’, eighth notes last 250,
quarter notes 500 and half notes 1,000 ms) that comprises the RESULTS
song’s melody (lines 2–4). This property—that most information To test the ability of slow conductances to produce duration-sen-
is carried in complex sequences of long-duration sounds—is pre- sitive neurons, we created single-compartment models of neurons
sent in many auditory signals, and especially in speech and music. having INa and IKD and (depending on the model) the transient K
Extracting information from these signals requires measuring long current IA, the hyperpolarization-activated, depolarizing current
durations; in the studies described here we investigated the neur- Ih and the low-threshold Ca current IT. The inhibition duration-
al mechanism underlying this ability. sensitive neurons receive during sound6 was modeled with a
Neurons that fire after sounds of specific durations are pre- synaptic current open throughout sound duration.
sent in amphibian midbrain1,2 and mammalian inferior collicu- Interaction of IKD and IA can create low-pass models (Fig. 2a).
lus, thalamus and cortex3–5. Three types of duration-sensitive When the model was hyperpolarized for 2, 125, 250, 375, 500,
neuron are known: low-pass (which fire after durations shorter 625, 750, 875 and 1,000 ms, it fired after all hyperpolarizations
than a certain value), high-pass (which fire after durations longer ≤500 ms; in the auditory system it would fire for all sounds ≤500
than a certain value) and band-pass neurons (which fire only ms. Model duration sensitivity arises as follows. At rest, sufficient
after durations within a narrow range)3–5. These neurons respond IKD is open to prevent firing, and IA is almost completely inacti-
to durations of 2–75 ms in bat3 and up to 200 ms in cat5. Whether vated. Hyperpolarization quickly closes IKD but only slowly
similar neurons are present in humans is unknown, but inter- removes IA inactivation (at –80 mV, the time constant of IA inac-
preting speech and music would require neurons sensitive to tivation removal is 500 ms). After short hyperpolarizations, little
durations up to thousands of milliseconds. Sound inhibits dura- IA is available to open, and sufficient IKD closes to induce post-
tion-sensitive neurons6, and duration sensitivity has been pro- inhibitory rebound and firing. As duration increases, more IA
posed to arise because the coincidence of post-inhibitory rebound inactivation is removed (bottom trace) and eventually IA blocks
and delayed excitatory synaptic input drives the neurons above firing. Models tuned to durations from 2 to 1,800 ms, which span
spike threshold3,6–9. For short sounds (<50 ms), axonal and the durations in speech and music, can be constructed using
synaptic delays could produce the delays in excitatory input this physiological IA parameters10–14.
hypothesis requires, but these mechanisms are inadequate to pro- Ih can create high-pass models (Fig. 2b). When this model
duce the delays required to measure longer durations6. was hyperpolarized for the same durations as in Figure 2a, it fired

552 nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002


iological IA and Ih parameters. Models tuned to shorter durations

can be constructed using faster Ih-like currents20 or delay line
mechanisms, which are biologically possible for short durations.
Duration-sensitive neurons can fire short spike bursts, and
slow conductance–based low-, high- and band-pass bursting
models can be constructed (Fig. 2d–f). We obtained a low-pass
burst model (Fig. 2d) by slightly (≤10%) hyperpolarizing the
voltage dependence of the opening and closing rates of IKD (ref.
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

21). In the absence of IA, any duration of hyperpolarization

Fig. 1. ‘Y.M.C.A’ temporal pattern. Line 1 shows the sound pattern in
musical notation. The pattern consists of five alternations of B and D induces the model to fire a short spike burst at the end. Varying
eighth notes, a quarter note of D, a half note of E, a quarter note of D IA amplitude tunes the model to fire only for durations shorter
and two E and D eighth notes (B above middle C, 494 Hz; D, 587.3 Hz; than a certain value. Bursting in the other models (Fig. 2e, f) was
E, 659.25 Hz). Lines 2–4 are an alternate representation in which the supported by IT, from which hyperpolarization removes inacti-
rectangles represent note duration. Line 5 is the song’s beat (eighth vation. Tuning in the high-pass model was achieved with an IA
notes separated by eighth note rests) in the rectangle representation. whose inactivation removal was faster than that for IT but which,
‘Y.M.C.A’ was composed by J. Morali, H. Belolo and V. Willis and per- when IA and IT were fully activated, could not prevent IT from
formed by the Village People. inducing a burst. IA thus blocks firing after short hyperpolariza-
tions but not long ones. The band-pass model was tuned by
adding a second, slower IA that blocked firing after long hyper-
after all durations ≥500 ms. In this model little IKD is open at polarizations; the two IAs constrained firing to a short duration
rest, and there is therefore no post-inhibitory rebound due to range. Altering conductance amplitude and kinetics changes burst
IKD closing. Instead Ih supports post-inhibitory rebound, and spike number and model tuning; the models can be physiologi-
the model fires only after durations long enough to activate suf- cally tuned through the same ranges as single-spike models.
ficient Ih to drive the model above threshold. Ih is present in many All three models fired fewer spikes as they approach their firing
vertebrate neurons15, including those of the auditory system16,17. limit(s); this decline also occurs in bursting duration–sensitive neu-
Models tuned to durations from 15 to >5,000 ms can be con- rons4,5. In slow-conductance models, this decline is a ‘natural’ con-
structed using physiological Ih parameters10,11,18,19. sequence of the mechanisms underlying model tuning. For instance,
IA and Ih can create band-pass models (Fig. 2c). When this in the bursting low-pass model, the growth of IA eventually blocked
model was hyperpolarized for the same durations as in Figure 2a, firing; this same growth, by partially offsetting the post-inhibitory
and also for 480 and 522 ms, it fired only for durations narrowly rebound, also resulted in the model firing fewer spikes at interme-
centered around 500 ms. The model contains IA and Ih currents diate durations. Similar IA-mediated decreases in post-inhibitory
with the same kinetics as in Figure 2a and b. Ih increases with rebound occur in dorsal cochlear nucleus pyramidal neurons22.
duration, and eventually the model fires. As duration increases Tones are often repeated with brief inter-tone (silent) intervals.
further, enough IA inactivation is removed that IA overcomes Ih To respond correctly to repeated tones, duration-sensitive neurons
and the model no longer reaches threshold. Models tuned to cen- require inter-tone intervals of 30–200 ms23; the models in Figure 2
ter durations from 50 to 3,000 ms can be constructed using phys- required intervals of 60–400 ms. However, the currents in these
models all had the same kinetics (only conductance amplitude
d was varied). When conductance kinetics was also varied (but
a always in the physiological range), the models responded cor-
rectly to repeated tones with inter-tone intervals of 10–60 ms.
In human perception, the accuracy of duration measurement
decreases linearly with duration, and is ±5% of center dura-
tion24. That is, durations between 475 and 525 ms (range 50 ms)
cannot be distinguished from 500 ms (center duration), and
durations between 950 and 1,050 ms (range 100 ms) cannot be
distinguished from 1,000 ms (center duration). This is also seen
b e in band-pass neurons: neurons tuned to short durations fire over
a narrower duration range than neurons tuned to long dura-
tions8. Response range similarly increased with tuned duration
in both our single-spike (Fig. 3a–c; when the model was tuned to
0.25, 0.5 and 1 s, its response ranges were 19, 42 and 81 ms,
respectively) and bursting (Fig. 3d and e) band-pass models.

Fig. 2. Models that reproduce low-, high- and band-pass neurons.

c f Left column, single-spike models; right column, bursting models. In all
panels, top traces are model responses to hyperpolarizations of vari-
ous durations. (a, d) Low-pass models, with firing for all durations
≤500 ms (b, e) High-pass models, with firing for all durations ≥500
ms; (c, f), band-pass models, with firing for a narrow range of dura-
tions centered around 500 ms. Lower traces in (a) and (b) are fraction
of available IA and open Ih in response to sustained hyperpolarization;
gray rectangles are values for which the model can fire. Plots in (d), (e)
and (f) show spike number as a function of duration.

nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002 553


Fig. 3. Band-pass model response range

a d increases with tuned duration. Single-spike
models: (a) tuned to 0.25 s, response range
0.241–0.26 s; (b) tuned to 0.5 s, response
range 0.480–0.522 s; (c) tuned to 1 s, response
range 0.966–1.047 sec. (d, e) Similar data for
bursting models (for clarity, only the ranges
b e over which the models fire two spikes are
shown; one-spike ranges are slightly larger).
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

Dashed lines are response ranges of 0.25 s sin-

gle-spike (a–c) and 0.5 s burst (d, e) models.
The response ranges become larger (f) because
the curves governing current expression flatten
as duration increases. Curves represent avail-
c f able Ih fraction during a 1.03 s hyperpolariza-
tion for 0.25 s and 1 s single-spike models.
Insets are expansions of the curves near the
fraction where the models can fire; insets have
equal available Ih fraction (∆ = 0.0231) and time
(∆ = 66 ms) ranges. The horizontal gray rectan-
gles show the fraction range in which each
model can fire; the vertical gray rectangles show
the corresponding time range. Although the
0.25 s model can fire over a much wider available Ih range, because of the steepness of its curve in this region, this corresponds to a much shorter
time range. The two curves do not achieve the same fraction at long times because, as a result of the different IA and Ih maximal conductances in
them, their voltages differ in the later portions of the hyperpolarizations.

This increased response range ‘naturally’ arises in slow-con- clamp cannot be obtained in these neurons3,7 (E. Covey, personal
ductance models. The models fire when their currents simulta- communication). This problem can be resolved by hyperpolarizing
neously have values within certain windows. Tuning is achieved duration-sensitive neurons to test whether they show rebound fir-
by adjusting conductance maxima until, at the tuned duration, ing and whether spike number varies with hyperpolarization dura-
all currents have values within these windows. The fraction of tion. To our knowledge, such experiments have not been reported,
available or open current rises as a function of 1 – et/c. As the mod- but about one-third of the neurons in rat inferior colliculus slices
els are tuned to longer durations, their firing occurs further in rebound and spike after square-wave hyperpolarization26.
flatter regions of these curves, and a given current window cor- Third, consistent with the slow-conductance hypothesis,
responds to longer time windows. Thus, during a sustained hyper- which depends on hyperpolarization, inhibitory transmitter
polarization, the 0.25 s single-spike band-pass model fired for antagonists abolish duration sensitivity9. Because the delayed
fractions of available Ih between 0.2602 and 0.2756, whereas the synaptic excitation hypothesis also requires inhibition, these data
1 s single-spike band-pass model fired for fractions between do not distinguish between the hypotheses. An experiment that
0.5291and 0.5298 (Fig. 3f). Although the I h fraction range over would do so would be one blocking excitatory synaptic input.
which firing can occur was 22-fold greater in the 0.25 s model, However, as a multisynaptic pathway mediates sound-evoked
because of the steepness of its curve in this region, the duration responses6, this test may be impossible to perform. In addition,
range to which this Ih fraction range corresponded was much nar- the slow-conductance and synaptic hypotheses are not mutually
rower in the 0.25 s model than in the 1 s model. exclusive; both mechanisms could be present and have comple-
mentary roles in duration sensing, with slow conductance mech-
DISCUSSION anisms becoming increasingly important as duration increases.
It is important to compare our models to experimental data. First, Fourth, auditory neurons have currents similar to those used
sounds occur at different intensities, and the tuning of duration- here. Some inferior colliculus neurons contain IKD currents with
sensitive neurons can vary or not with changes in sound inten- altered activation-voltage dependencies27, as in our single-spike
sity4,5,25. Because slow-conductance activation and inactivation and burst low-pass models. A slow Ih is present in cochlear nucle-
are voltage dependent, changing hyperpolarization amplitude us octopus cells17, and slow IA and IT are present in some inferi-
changes the tuning of slow-conductance models. Slow-conduc- or colliculus neurons; the latter neurons show post-inhibitory
tance models can therefore reproduce, depending on the nature rebound firing27. Unfortunately, in the inferior colliculus work,
of their synaptic input, both sound intensity–independent and duration sensitivity could not be examined, and direct compar-
–dependent neurons. Intensity-independent models have synap- ison with our models is thus impossible. Nonetheless, these data
tic input that does not vary with intensity, or a synapse so strong show that the fundamental building blocks of our models are
that it reaches reversal potential for all inputs. Intensity-depen- present in auditory neurons.
dent models have synaptic input that varies with intensity, and Slow-conductance band-pass neurons can analyze the
a synapse weak enough that postsynaptic hyperpolarization varies ‘Y.M.C.A.’ melody (Fig. 4). For the note B (494 Hz; Fig. 4a), the
with changes in presynaptic activity. 0.25 s neuron fires at 0.25, 0.75 and 1.25 s, and thereby signals
Second, auditory midbrain neurons display duration tuning that immediately before these times a 494 Hz eighth note occurred
under voltage-clamp recording conditions3,7. Because our mod- (because there are no 494 Hz quarter or half notes, the 0.5 s and
els rely on voltage-dependent conductances, these data appear to 1 s neurons do not fire). For the note D (587.3 Hz; Fig. 4b), fir-
contradict the slow-conductance hypothesis. However, good space ing of the 0.25 s or 0.5 s neurons signals when 587.3 Hz eighth or

554 nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002


Fig. 4. Analysis of ‘Y.M.C.A.’ using single-spike slow-conductance band-

a pass neurons. Bottom trace (in each panel), sound pattern of note; next
trace up, firing of a cochlear neuron tuned to that note; three upper
traces, activities of 1, 0.5 and 0.25 s band-pass neurons inhibited when
tones of 494 (a), 587.3 (b), and 659.25 (c) Hz are played. In (a), firing of
0.25 s neuron signals that 494 Hz (B in musical notation) eighth notes
occurred immediately before 0.25, 0.75 and 1.25 s. In (b), firing of 0.25 s
neuron signals that 587.3 Hz (D) eighth notes occurred immediately
before 0.5, 1 and 3.75 s; firing of 0.5 s neuron signals that 587.3 Hz quarter
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

notes occurred immediately before 1.75 and 3.25 s. In (c), firing of 0.25 s
neuron signals that a 659.25 Hz (E) eighth note occurred immediately
before 3.5 s; firing of 1 s neuron signals that a 659.25 Hz half note occurred
b immediately before 2.75 s. Connections between cochlear and band-pass
neurons are dashed because these connections are multisynaptic6.

were multiplied by 3(37–23.5)/10 = 3.54). When necessary for tuning, con-

ductance kinetics was adjusted by multiplying da/dt and db/dt by con-
stants (all changes were in the physiological range). For INa and IKD, a∞
= α /(α + β) and τa = 1/(α + β), where α and β are membrane voltage
(Vm)–dependent opening and closing rates35. IA, I h and I T a∞, b∞, τa and
c τb were given by equations of the form:

a∞ = 1/(1 + e(Vm –V1/2)/S) and τa = c/(e(Vm–V1/2τ1)/Sτ1 + e(Vm–V1/2τ2)/S τ2)36.

The currents were calculated from I =ga n 1b n 2(V m – E) or I

=Pa n 1bn 2 G(Vm,[Cao],[Cai]), whereg is maximum conductance, E
reversal potential,P maximum permeability, [Cao] and [Cai] external
and internal Ca concentration and G the constant field equation. Vm was
given by dVm/dt = [injected current – Σ(membrane and synaptic cur-
rents)]/Cm, where Cm is membrane capacitance (0.29 nF in all simula-
tions). Models were implemented in ModelMaker (FamilyGenetix,
quarter notes sound. For the note E (659.25 Hz; Fig. 4c), firing of Oxford, UK; fourth-order Runge-Kutta integration, accuracy 0.0001,
the 0.25 s or 1 s neurons signals when 659.25 Hz eighth or half error 0.001) or Simulink/Matlab (Mathworks, Natick, Massachusetts;
notes sound. The model thus transforms the ‘Y.M.C.A.’ melody ODE45 Dormand-Prince integration, relative tolerance 10−4; absolute
tolerance 10−5).
into a duration-based place map in which the firing of specific
Model equations (except for I T, τ is in ms, Vm in mV, I in nA andg
neurons signals the time and duration of each note.
in µS) were as follows:
The brain’s analysis of the beat line (Fig. 1) remains to be
explained. The beat conveys only repeat period (the song’s tempo) Isyn +gsyn (Vm + 85);gsyn = 0.2 during sound
and relative duration (that beat duration is, in this case, 50% of and 0 otherwise
repeat period—eighth notes separated by eighth rests). One pos-
sibility is that higher centers calculate these measures (by Ileak =g leakK . (Vm + 105) +g leakNa. (Vm – 45)
unknown mechanisms) using input from beat-excited duration-
sensitive neurons. We have shown elsewhere, however, that neu- INa = g Na . m3 . h . (Vm – 45)
rons with slow membrane properties vary their firing as a
function of beat parameters and can identify all repeating on/off α m = 0.091 . (Vm + 38)/(1 – e –(Vm + 38)/5);
patterns such as beat lines28, and that slow-conductance models
reproduce these data (E.B., J.B. Thuma, A.L.Weaver, and S.L.H., β m = –0.062 . (Vm + 38)/(1 – e(Vm +38)/5)
Soc. Neurosci. Abstr. 26, 748.9, 2000).
These data and those presented here thus show that, in the- α h = 0.016 . e–(Vm + 55)/15; β h = 2.07/(1 + e–(Vm – 17)/21)
ory, all temporal aspects of music, speech and other, similar pat-
IKD =gKD . n4 . (Vm + 105)
terns can be analyzed by slow-conductance neurons. That
individual cells can ‘measure’ temporal patterns is further sup- α n = 0.01 . (Vm + 45)/(1 – e–(Vm + V 1/2KDα)/5);
ported by work showing pattern-specific variation in second-
messenger concentration, protein and gene expression, β n = 0.17 . e–(Vm + V 1/2KD β )/40
membrane conductance levels, firing delay and peptide secretion
in isolated cells or cell groups driven by varying temporal Single-spike models, V 1/ = –45, V 1/ = –50
input29–34. Taken together, this work suggests that individual neu- 2KDα 2KD β

rons can perform relatively complicated temporal analyses, and Burst models, V 1/ = –47.5, V 1/ = –55
2KD α 2KD β
that slow conductances may be centrally involved in this process.
Ih =gh . ah . (Vm + 30)
Conductance activation a (or inactivation, b) was given by da/dt = (a∞ a∞h = 1/(1 + e(Vm + 75)/5.5);
– a)/τa, where a∞ is steady-state activation and τa is the activation time
constant. da/dt and db/dt were temperature compensated using Q10 = 3 τ ah = 270/(e–(Vm + 90)/12.5 + e(Vm +75)/5)
(data were acquired at 23.5°C and models run at 37°C, so da/dt and db/dt

nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002 555


frog’s thalamus: processing of pulse duration and pulse repetition rate.

IA =gA . aA3bA . (Vm + 105) Neurosci. Lett. 63, 215–220 (1996).
3. Casseday, J. H., Ehrlich, D. & Covey E. Neural tuning for sound duration: role of
a∞A = 1/(1 + e–(Vm – V1/2IAa∞)/20); inhibitory mechanisms in the inferior colliculus. Science 264, 847–850 (1994).
4. Galazyuk, A. V. & Feng, A. S. Encoding of sound duration by neurons in the
auditory cortex of the little brown bat, Myotis lucifugus. J. Comp. Physiol. A
τ aA = 0.37 + 1/(e(Vm + 35.8)/19.7 + e–(Vm + 79.7)/12.7) 180, 301–311 (1997).
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556 nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002


Local inhibition modulates odor-

evoked synchronization of
glomerulus-specific output neurons
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

Hong Lei, Thomas A. Christensen and John G. Hildebrand

Arizona Research Laboratories, Division of Neurobiology, University of Arizona, PO Box 210077, Tucson, Arizona 85721-0077, USA
Correspondence should be addressed to T.A.C. (

Published online: 13 May 2002, DOI:10.1038/nn859

At the first stage of olfactory processing in the brain, synchronous firing across glomeruli may help to
temporally bind multiple and spatially distributed input streams activated by a given odor. This
hypothesis, however, has never been tested in an organism in which the odor-tuning properties of
several spatially identifiable glomeruli are known. Using the sphinx moth, an insect that meets these
specific criteria, we recorded odor-evoked responses simultaneously from pairs of projection neurons
(PNs) innervating the same or different glomeruli in the macroglomerular complex (MGC), which is
involved in processing pheromonal information. PNs that branched in the same glomerulus and were
activated by the same pheromone component also showed the strongest coincident responses to
each odor pulse. Glomerulus-specific PN pairs were also inhibited by the pheromone component that
selectively activated PNs in the neighboring glomerulus, and about 70% of all intraglomerular pairs
showed increased synchronization when stimulated with a mixture of the two odorants. Thus, when
two adjacent glomeruli receive their inputs simultaneously, the temporal tuning of output from each
glomerulus is enhanced by reciprocal and inhibitory interglomerular interactions.

Temporal summation of synaptic inputs can greatly increase the acid) contributes to the precision of spike timing in olfactory PNs
probability of activating target neurons in networks that process in both vertebrates and invertebrates20–22, and both fast and slow
sensory information1,2. Studies in the mammalian visual and inhibitory postsynaptic potentials (IPSPs) from GABAergic local
somatosensory systems have shown that synchronized spiking across interneurons are prominent components of PN responses in
a distributed ensemble of neurons may also serve to temporally diverse animal species (reviewed in ref. 13). In the vertebrate
bind the different features of a complex stimulus, thus reinforcing olfactory bulb, for example, dendrodendritic reciprocal synaps-
the population code that is read postsynaptically3,4. Likewise, in the es between mitral/tufted (M/T) cells and granule cells provide a
olfactory systems of both vertebrates and invertebrates, temporal basis for recurrent inhibition of M/T cell activity18,20. Numerous
patterning is centrally involved in encoding chemosensory infor- studies have also suggested that the tuning specificity of a
mation5–9. In some cases, network oscillations modulate the pat- glomerulus (its ‘odor contrast’ in analogy to retinal processing
terns of synchronized spiking activity evoked by odors6–9, whereas for vision) may be enhanced further by lateral inhibition medi-
in others, the timing of odor-evoked synchrony is neither oscilla- ated by reciprocal synaptic connections between glomeruli18,23–26.
tory nor odor specific10–12. Thus the functional importance of pre- This idea, however, remains controversial on the grounds that it
cise timing relationships between the different neural elements that is not yet known which features of an olfactory stimulus provide
encode olfactory information is not known for any organism. the local contrast27.
In the insect antennal lobe, the structural and functional ana- In a recent study, simultaneous extracellular recordings
log of the vertebrate olfactory bulb, the first synapses occur in from pairs of M/T cells presumed to innervate different
anatomically discrete and functionally distinguishable modules glomeruli showed synchronized firing in response to some
called glomeruli (reviewed in ref. 13). A glomerulus is the site of olfactory stimuli9. In that study, pairs of M/T cells innervat-
convergence of numerous olfactory receptor cells (ORCs) express- ing the same glomerulus were not examined, and the full range
ing one or a few types of odorant receptors14,15, and each recep- of odorants represented in these glomeruli was not known9. A
tor probably recognizes only a limited number of physical rigorous test for odor-evoked synchrony across olfactory
determinants associated with a given odor molecule16–18. Dif- glomeruli requires that the tuning characteristics of several
ferent odorants thus activate different subsets of glomeruli, pro- readily identifiable glomeruli be well defined. Here we used
ducing a specific spatial representation of each odorant at the intracellular methods to record simultaneously from pairs of
earliest stages of processing in the brain13,18,19. Information about PNs in the MGC of the male sphinx moth—an insect olfacto-
the specific chemical and spatiotemporal features of the odor ry system that meets these criteria. PNs that innervated the
stimulus is then transmitted in multiple, parallel channels to same glomerulus and responded selectively to the same odor-
higher centers through glomerular PNs. GABA (γ-aminobutyric ant (a component of the sex pheromone) showed greater syn-

nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002 557


Table 1. Physiological features of paired MGC-PN recordings

© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

Responses to olfactory stimuli were obtained in a total of 75 experiments involving simultaneous intracellular recordings from
pairs of MGC-PNs. In 34 pairs, both neurons showed primarily excitatory responses to only one odorant; cumulus neurons
responded to C15; toroid neurons responded to BAL. Pheromone-responsive pairs were then classified according to their
response specificity (C15/C15, BAL/BAL or C15/BAL). Each pair of neurons was then scored for four traits associated with
synchronous firing, as measured by the correlation coefficient between PNs. Expression of odor-evoked synchrony (% synchronous
events relative to total spikes) is indicated by the filled triangles (large, 75–100%; medium, 50–74%; small, 15–49%). Expression of
the remaining traits (% increase in correlation) is indicated by the filled circles (large, >100%; medium, 50–100%; small, 5–49%).
None of the pairs showed oscillatory synchrony; six pairs showed all other traits (indicated by asterisks). None of the C15/BAL
pairs showed blend-dependent effects on synchrony. n, not tested.

chronization of spike discharges as compared to PNs that RESULTS

innervated neighboring glomeruli and fired in response to dif- Male Manduca sexta moths are attracted to a blend of two relat-
ferent pheromone components. Furthermore, we found that ed odorants (BAL and C15; see Methods) that represent key com-
odor-evoked synchrony between PNs from one MGC glomeru- ponents of the female sex pheromone 11,22. Each odorant is
lus was augmented by local inhibitory input from the neigh- detected by a different population of ORCs, and the filtered infor-
boring MGC glomerulus encoding the other key component mation is then relayed to two principal glomeruli in the MGC,
of the pheromone. These findings support a crucial role for where the first steps of synaptic processing take place28–30. Our
interglomerular interactions in shaping the glomerular repre- results are based on olfactory responses recorded simultaneous-
sentations for odors in the brain. Although these lateral synap- ly from 34 pairs of MGC-PNs in as many moths (Table 1). In 26
tic interactions serve to enhance the contrast between odor pairs, spiking activity in both PNs was triggered selectively by the
signals, the underlying mechanism differs from ‘classical’ lateral same odorant (Fig. 1): the primary excitatory stimulus for these
inhibition as seen in other sensory systems. PNs was either C15 (n = 11 pairs, Fig. 1a and b, left) or BAL (n =

Fig. 1. PNs innervating the same glomerulus responded

selectively to the same odorant and showed stimulus-
synchronized responses to repetitive stimulation. a
(a) Innervation patterns in the antennal lobe corresponding
to each of the different pairs of PNs analyzed. The most eas-
ily identifiable glomeruli of the MGC are the cloud-shaped
cumulus and the ring-shaped toroid, and MGC-PNs in this
study innervated only one of these two structures. MGC-
PNs in M. sexta do not innervate any of the other, sexually
isomorphic glomeruli in the antennal lobe. (b) Intracellular b
responses to a train of five brief (200-ms) pulses of the single
pheromone components C15 (10 ng), BAL (10 ng) or the
mixture of the two odorants (blend; 10 ng each). Three pairs
of PNs are shown: two cumulus PNs selective for C15 (left),
two toroid PNs selective for BAL (center) and one PN of
each type (right). Note that PNs were depolarized by one
odorant and hyperpolarized by the other. (c) Detail of the
opposing responses to the two odorants. The two traces in
each column show responses recorded from a single neuron c
in each pair. In each case, one odorant depolarized the PN,
whereas the other evoked membrane hyperpolarization
(asterisks) and/or stopped spike activity completely.
(d) Cross correlations between three pairs of PNs that
innervated the same or different glomeruli (average of five
responses to the pheromone blend). The correlograms
showed greater odor-evoked synchrony between PNs when
both innervated the cumulus (left; r = 0.60; n = 11) or the
toroid (center; r = 0.51; n = 15), but significantly less
co-activity (r = 0.27) between interglomerular pairs (right;
P = 0.02, Kruskal-Wallis ANOVA).

558 nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002


Fig. 2. Time-series analysis of responses to a

repeated odor pulses recorded simultaneously
PN1 5
from pairs of PNs. (a) Raster plots show the 10 ng BAL

Synchronized spike/ bin

PN2 4
responses of two toroid PNs to five consecutive
pulses of BAL. Lower raster series shows only the PN1 x PN2
synchronous events between the two neurons
(PN 1 × PN 2). A 5-ms bin was used, reflecting 1s
Single-pulse trials (10 ng C15)
instantaneous spike frequencies in the 200 Hz b #1 1
1 ng BAL

range. For some pulses, spontaneous spiking #2

© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

resumed in the two PNs before the onset of the

0 0.1 0 .2 0.3 0 .4
subsequent odor pulse (time course of stimulus 1 ng BAL Time (s)
train is indicated beneath rasters). The transient 0 PN 1
window of synchrony between PNs was in every 3
Trains of pulses

case tightly modulated by stimulus dynamics, and 2 PN 2
the duration of each window matched the dura- 1
10 ng BAL
tion of the odor pulse. (b) Time course of 0
PN 1
odorant-evoked synchrony between two cumulus 0 120 160 200 240 280 320

PNs selective for C15. Raster plots depict the 4
PN 2
occurrence of PN synchrony (top) in the
responses to three consecutive odor pulses, and
0 40 80 120 160
post-stimulus time histograms (PSTHs; 5-ms bins) c Response time (ms)
Synchronous spikes

summarize the results across trials. The PSTHs 100 * * * Cumulus

illustrate the absence of periodicity in synchro- 80
(% total)

nous events whether odor pulses were separated 60

by 1 min (top) or 1 s (middle and bottom). No 40 Toroid

20 c/c t/t c/t
periodicity was seen whether data were aligned 0
with respect to odor onset (middle) or to the first 1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th pulse

synchronous event in each pair of responses (bot- e PN-PN synchrony (%) Latency, onset to peak (ms)
tom). (c) The occurrence of synchrony remained 100 e d 30 d d c/c
bc cd c/t
consistent across repeated odor pulses separated 80 c ILP
ab 20 ab
by 1 s, but in accordance with Fig. 1, the percent- 60
age of synchronous spikes between PNs (relative 40
10 CMB
to total) was greater for intraglomerular PN pairs 20

(c/c or t/t) than for interglomerular pairs (c/t) (c, 0

1 10 1 10 1 10
1 10 1 10 1 10
cumulus; t, toroid). All values are mean ± s.d.; Dosage (ng) Dosage (ng)
within each pulse, a significant difference between
two means is indicated by an asterisk (Kruskall-
Wallis test; P < 0.05; n = 11, 15 and 8, for cumulus, toroid and mixed pairs, respectively). (d) Odorant-evoked synchrony is modulated by stimulus
concentration. PSTHs show the averaged responses to five consecutive 150-ms odor pulses (5-ms bins) and illustrate the time course of synchronous
firing between a pair of toroid PNs in response to stimulation with BAL at a dosage of 1 ng (shaded) or 10 ng (black). Stimulation with the higher con-
centration resulted in both an increased frequency and reduced latency of synchronous events. Intracellular records show the responses from both
PNs to a single pulse consisting of 1 ng (top traces) or 10 ng (bottom traces) of BAL. Stimulus intensity and the calculated correlation coefficients
between PNs were positively correlated (r = 0.35 and 0.48 for the 1- and 10-ng stimuli, respectively). Small tick marks in each trace reflect cross-talk
between the two recording electrodes. Stimulus time course is indicated by the solid bar beneath the traces. (e) Summary of dose-dependent effects
on synchrony between PNs in each group. Half of all PN/PN pairs in this study were tested with two concentrations of the pheromone blend (1- and
10-ng dosages). Left, synchrony was expressed as the percentage of synchronous events relative to the total spike counts in each pair of PNs. A sta-
tistically significant effect of concentration was seen in both intraglomerular PN/PN groups (cumulus pairs, n = 7; toroid pairs, n = 8) as well as in the
interglomerular pairs (n = 2) (Kruskal-Wallis test followed by Mann-Whitney U-test; P < 0.05). Right, dose-dependent effect on the latency from stim-
ulus onset to peak of synchronous firing between PNs. Again, the higher concentration shifted this latency to significantly lower values for both intra-
glomerular groups of PNs, as well as for the interglomerular group (P < 0.05). All values are mean ± s.d. Means shown with the same letter are not
significantly different (P > 0.05). (f) Confocal-microscopic montage showing the anatomy of a pair of PNs from the interglomerular group, recorded
simultaneously in the moth antennal lobe. Both PNs were stained with LY (see Methods). The uniglomerular arborizations of each neuron are located
in different glomeruli: one innervates the cumulus (the C15 neuron, larger soma) and the other has branches confined to the toroid (the BAL neu-
ron, smaller soma). As found in previous studies, each PN gave rise to a single axon that projected to the ipsilateral inferior lateral protocerebrum
(ILP). Each axon also extended sparse collateral branches into the ipsilateral calyces of the mushroom bodies (CMB).

15 pairs, Fig. 1a and b, center). In eight additional PN pairs, the inhibitory responses to C15; that is, they were hyperpolarized by
primary stimulus that triggered spiking was different for each the odorant representing the primary excitatory input to the adja-
neuron (Fig. 1a and b, right). cent glomerulus. Similarly, all cumulus neurons were hyperpo-
We identified MGC-PNs through electrical stimulation of the larized by BAL (Fig. 1c)29. We investigated how interglomerular
antennal nerve or iontophoretic injection of Lucifer Yellow (LY) inhibition might be involved in modulating the output from these
stain (Fig. 2f). As found previously28,29, PNs with arborizations two identified glomeruli.
confined to the glomerulus known as the ‘cumulus’ were selec-
tively depolarized by C15, whereas those with branches in the Cross-correlations within and between glomeruli
‘toroid’ glomerulus were depolarized by BAL (Figs. 1 and 2f). In Comparison of two simultaneously impaled PNs showed strik-
this study, all neurons that innervated the toroid also showed ing similarities in their responses to repeated odorant pulses, and

nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002 559


Fig. 3. Time course of synchronous firing a 5 C15 0.35 b

between PNs. (a) PSTHs from two toroid 20 mV
4 PN 1
PNs (black, red) show excitatory responses PN 2

to stimulation with BAL, but suppression of 0.25

Time (s)
background activity with C15 stimulation 2 50 +
2 6
alone (stimulus onset was at time = 0; dura-

PN 2
tion = 200 ms). (b) Dynamic correlation 0
1 2 100 + +
analysis (color contour plots) show that PN 1 6
0 0.05
spikes in the two PNs showed the greatest
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

0.05 0.15 0.25 0.35 0.05 0.15 0.25 0.35 2 + +
synchrony at the onset of their response win- 200
dows. Color scale represents the normalized 5 0.35 6
correlation calculated over five consecutive 4
responses (range = –1 to +1). (c) Effect of 2 300 + +


Time (s)
3 6
stimulus duration on patterns of odor-evoked
synchrony between PNs. Raw data traces 0
(top) show responses of a pair of toroid PNs 0.15 2 400 + + +
1 6
to stimulation with a 50-ms pulse of BAL.
Spikes in the PNs became synchronized near 0 0.05 0
response onset. The moment at which the 0.05 0.15 0.25 0.35 0.05 0.15 0.25 0.35 0 0.1 0.2 0.3 0.4
time lag between spikes in the two PNs Blend
Time (s) Time (s) Time (s)
exceeded 5 ms is indicated by the asterisk.
Each panel shows the near-coincidence his-
tograms (top graphs) and the superimposed PSTHs (bottom graphs) for the two PNs stimulated with BAL pulses of 50, 100, 200, 300 and 400 ms,
respectively (stimulus time course indicated by solid bar beneath each panel). All traces were averaged over five trials. The times at which positive
correlations above 0.3 occurred are indicated in each panel (+). Several conditions are readily apparent. The first and largest coincidence peak reli-
ably reflects stimulus onset, regardless of stimulus duration. The distribution of spike activity broadens as a function of stimulus duration, and longer-
duration stimuli may also evoke a greater number of smaller coincidence peaks (bottom panel). This latter effect could be due to the greater
probability that the stimulus time course will be non-uniform as the period of stimulation is prolonged.

this occurred whether the two neurons were tuned to the same ulus pulse (Fig. 2a). Although the two neurons often continued to
or to different odorants (Fig. 1b). Without exception, both PNs fire after the odor pulse had ended, and their spike trains over-
in each pair fired discrete bursts of action potentials in response lapped in time, we saw no synchronous firing except during this
to consecutive pulses of the excitatory odorant, and each burst window defined by the stimulus duration. To test whether the
of spikes was truncated by a distinct membrane hyperpolariza- absence of periodic patterning was due to the effects of adapta-
tion (Fig. 1b and c)22. Time-series analysis showed further that tion, we also tested an inter-stimulus interval of 1 min. Again,
the temporal relationships between PN spike trains differed we found no evidence for an odor-specific pattern of synchrony
markedly depending on the odor-tuning properties of the two that was repeated from trial to trial (Fig. 2b, top). Neither did we
neurons recorded. Olfactory stimulation with the pheromone find any significant change in the strength of PN/PN coherence
blend (C15 + BAL) evoked synchronous firing in pairs of PNs over repeated trials using this pulsatile stimulation protocol
innervating the same glomerulus (correlation coefficients, mean (Fig. 2c; Table 1). Once again, intraglomerular PN pairs showed
± s.d.: 0.60 ± 0.15 for cumulus pairs, n = 11; 0.51 ± 0.26 for toroid a higher percentage of synchronous events per stimulus than did
pairs, n = 15), but significantly less synchrony between PNs inner- the interglomerular pairs (Fig. 2c; Table 1).
vating different glomeruli (0.27 ± 0.10, n = 8, P = 0.02; Fig. 1d).
These differences were evident in spite of the substantial overlap Concentration-dependent effects on PN synchrony
between spike trains in each pair of PNs (Fig. 1b). In addition, Of the 15 toroid pairs studied, eight were tested with two stim-
synchronized spiking did not appear spontaneously but only in ulus concentrations (1- and 10-ng pulses of BAL). Of these eight
response to olfactory stimulation. In all cases, we found more pairs of PNs, all 16 neurons were sensitive to changes in stimulus
synchrony between two PNs innervating the same glomerulus intensity (Fig. 2d). In each case, the 1-ng stimulus evoked fewer
and less synchrony between PNs innervating two neighboring synchronous events than the 10-ng stimulus (mean correlation
glomeruli, even though the two glomeruli encoded information coefficients for the 1- and 10-ng stimuli were 0.24 and 0.64,
about chemically similar odorants. respectively; P < 0.0005; Mann-Whitney U-test; Fig. 2d and e;
Table 1). For cumulus pairs tested with C15 (n = 7), the corre-
Stimulus-locked modulation of PN synchrony sponding values were 0.22 and 0.69 (P < 0.0005). Again, we saw
We also measured the influence of stimulus dynamics on the time no significant change in synchrony over repeated trials with the
course of synchrony between PNs (Fig. 2a and b). In accordance same stimulus, and the temporal pattern of synchrony evoked at
with our earlier studies, a stimulation protocol that produced both odor intensities always reflected stimulus dynamics with
multiple odor pulses separated by 1-s periods of clean air (much great temporal precision (Fig. 2d). In addition to increased syn-
like a natural odor plume12) yielded no evidence of an odor-spe- chrony (Fig. 2e, left), stimulation with the elevated odor con-
cific or periodic pattern of synchrony in the responses of paired centration resulted in significant reductions in the latency of the
cumulus PNs or toroid PNs (Fig. 2b, middle and bottom). response in individual PNs and in the latency to synchronous
Instead, spiking patterns were closely matched to the dynamics events between PNs (Fig. 2e, right). The 10-ng stimulus advanced
of the stimulus itself12. Synchronous firing occurred during a the response onset by as much as 50 ms as compared with the
time window that started at the onset of the response and con- 1-ng stimulus, and this pattern was generally consistent over
tinued for a period that approximated the duration of the stim- repeated stimulus trials (Fig. 2e, right).

560 nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002


Fig. 4. Blend-enhanced synchronization of PNs inner- a

vating the same glomerulus. In about 70% of all cases
examined, synchrony between glomerulus-specific PNs

was enhanced by stimulation with the pheromone blend.
(a) Cross-correlograms (10-ms bins) calculated from the
simultaneous responses of two toroid PNs to a BAL
stimulus. The number of synchronous events between
the two neurons was markedly greater in response to a
mixture of BAL + C15 (Blend, right panel) than to BAL
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

– – – – – –
alone (middle panel), and there was little or no co- Time (s) Time (s) Time (s)
activity between PNs in the absence of an odor stimulus
(control, left panel). (b) Dynamic correlation analysis b C15

showed the time course of synchrony. Again, synchrony
occurred reproducibly at response onset. The blend-
enhanced correlation is evident from the broader distri- BAL
bution of warm colors in the surface plots, and this
correlation was seen across the five consecutive odor
pulses (magnitude of correlation represented by color Blend 30 BAL Blend

scale, top right). Mean-rate histograms (inset) show that

PN 2
enhanced co-activity in response to the blend is not sim- 0
ply a function of increased spike activity evoked by PN 1 PN #
combining the two odorants. (c) Summary of blend-
enhanced effects on synchrony between PNs in each
group. Left, synchrony was expressed as the percentage Time (s)
of synchronous events relative to the total spike counts
in both PNs. The blend effect occurred in both the c PN-PN synchrony (%)
Latency, response onset
to peak synchrony (ms)
cumulus (7 out of 11) and toroid (11 out of 15) groups abd ab 30
100 b c b
but was statistically significant only in the former group d
(Kruskal-Wallis test followed by Mann-Whitney U-test; P 80 c/t
20 b ab
< 0.05). Interglomerular synchrony evoked by the blend 60
(n = 8) was also significantly weaker than intraglomerular 15
synchrony. Right, differential effects of the individual and 40
blended odorants on the latency from stimulus onset to 20 5
synchronous firing between PNs. The odor blend shifted
0 0
this latency to lower values for both the cumulus and C15 Blend BAL Blend Blend C15 Blend BAL Blend Blend
toroid (intraglomerular) groups of PNs, but the effect
was significant only in the latter group (P < 0.05). For the
interglomerular group, the latency was not significantly different from that measured in the other two groups. All values are mean ± s.d. Means
sharing the same letter were not significantly different (P > 0.05).

Dynamics of PN/PN synchronization that defines the sex pheromone in this insect) would evoke pat-
Peristimulus-time histograms (PSTHs) showed that the time terns of PN synchrony that were different from the patterns evoked
course of responses in two PNs selective for the same odorant by the individual odorants. This question is particularly intrigu-
were often nearly indistinguishable (Fig. 3a). Nevertheless, dynam- ing in light of the finding that in the PNs studied here, input from
ic correlation analysis of the underlying pattern of PN firing the neighboring glomerulus was inhibitory (Fig. 1c) and could
showed that the peak period of synchrony between the two neu- thus perform a modulatory function when the two adjacent
rons occurred only during a narrow window near the onset of the glomeruli were activated simultaneously. In 7 of 11 cumulus pairs
response (Fig. 3b). This brief period of co-activity (hereafter and 11 of 15 toroid pairs, the timing of PN/PN synchrony was
referred to as ‘onset synchrony’) was followed first by a period of enhanced by the mixture of odorants (Fig. 4a). The blend evoked
desynchronized spiking, and then by complete suppression of all significantly greater synchrony between PNs innervating the same
spiking until the next stimulus pulse. Onset synchrony between glomerulus (P = 0.05), and it also led to a broadening of the tem-
PNs also occurred before the peak response as measured by mean poral window during which synchrony occurred. This effect was
spike rate (Fig. 3c), indicating that the peaks of synchronous fir- reproducible over repeated trials (Fig. 4b). Comparing the ‘blend
ing did not reflect random coincident firing between the two neu- effect’ across the three groups of PN pairs, it is evident once again
rons. Onset synchrony always accompanied the rising phase of that the degree of synchronous firing between interglomerular PNs
the overlapping PSTHs from the two PNs, and it occurred at all was significantly smaller than that seen in either of the intra-
stimulus durations tested, from 50 to 400 ms (Fig. 3c). Peaks in glomerular groups (Fig. 4c, left; P < 0.05). Furthermore, in about
synchrony occasionally re-appeared during the falling phase of 50% of PN pairs in the latter two groups, we saw no apparent dif-
the odor response (possibly signaling stimulus offset), but the ference in spike rate when the primary excitatory stimulus or the
timing of these peaks was less predictable than it was during the blend containing that odorant was used (Fig. 4b, inset), indicat-
rising phase (Fig. 3c). ing that blend-enhanced synchrony was not a simple consequence
of increased PN spiking.
Blend-enhanced effects on synchrony We next examined the responses evoked by the C15+BAL
In nature, olfactory stimuli are typically mixtures of odorants. We blend to determine whether the blended stimulus had an effect
therefore examined whether the blend of BAL and C15 (a mixture on latency to PN synchrony, as seen with elevated stimulus

nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002 561


Fig. 5. Correlation between PNs in one glomerulus is modulated by

a inhibitory input from the neighboring glomerulus. (a) Simultaneous
PN/PN recordings showed a multiphasic postsynaptic response to a
blend of BAL + C15 (bar shows time course of a 200-ms pulse). In both
neurons the response consisted of a pronounced IPSP (arrow) that
immediately preceded a burst of action potentials22. This example is
from two toroid PNs that were both depolarized by BAL but hyperpo-
larized by C15 as in Fig. 1b. The IPSPs evoked by C15 directly preceded
b the onset of synchronous firing evoked by BAL. The PNs remained syn-
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

chronized for a period that matched the stimulus duration, and shortly
thereafter became desynchronized (asterisk). Spiking in both PNs then
ceased and the neurons returned to their resting states. (b) Relationship
between spike synchrony in a pair of PNs innervating one glomerulus,
and the strength of inhibitory synaptic input from the neighboring
glomerulus. The correlation between PN pairs is plotted against the
mean amplitude of the IPSP evoked by the odorant that activates the
adjacent glomerulus (y = 0.4 + 0.3x – 0.04x2; P = 0.01). (c) Schematic cir-
cuit diagram relating the two glomerular networks examined in this
olfactory system (round synapses are excitatory; triangular synapses are
inhibitory). The BAL- and C15-selective populations of olfactory recep-
tor cells (ORCs) transmit odor information to the toroid and the cumu-
lus, respectively. ORCs can excite PNs monosynaptically and/or
indirectly through disinhibitory pathways involving a diverse population
of about 300 GABAergic local interneurons (LN1–n). In the presence of
the conspecific pheromone blend, the two MGC glomeruli first act as fil-
c ters that provide specific spatial addresses for inputs from the two
classes of ORCs that are simultaneously activated. The GABAergic LNs
(providing the major inhibitory input to PNs) then serve at least two
important processing functions at this early stage: (i) they organize the
spatial pattern of activity in the activated glomeruli through specific
interglomerular linkages, and (ii) they organize the timing of output sig-
nals simultaneously from each glomerulus through the modulation of
synchrony between PNs (PN1 and 2 in toroid, PN3 and 4 in cumulus).

coefficient for each pair of PNs, we found a strongly positive cor-

relation between these two variables (Fig. 5b).

It has been proposed for the mammalian olfactory bulb that
concentrations (Fig. 2e). Stimulation with the blend of odor- neural synchronization across glomerular outputs may enhance
ants also resulted in reductions in the latency of the responses the representation of a complex olfactory stimulus by integrat-
of individual PNs and in the latency to onset synchrony ing the different signal streams activated by the odor into a uni-
between PNs (Fig. 4c, right). This shift in latency occurred in fied olfactory ‘image’ at the level of the sensory cortex9,18. In the
both intraglomerular groups, but was statistically significant sphinx moth, we have shown that synchrony does indeed occur
only in the toroid pairs (P < 0.05). The odor-blend stimulus across glomeruli, but we found that even when a blend of odor-
did not reduce the latency of response when synchrony was ants was used as a stimulus, the firing patterns of PNs from the
measured across glomeruli. same glomerulus always showed the highest correlations
(Fig. 1d). A number of studies have also suggested that lateral
Modulation of synchrony by interglomerular inhibition inhibition (mediated by reciprocal connections between M/T
GABA is centrally involved in the precision of spike timing in and granule cells in the olfactory bulb) may sharpen odor tun-
glomerular PNs of both vertebrates and invertebrates, and fast ing in a glomerulus (in direct analogy to contrast enhancement in
IPSPs from GABAergic local neurons (LNs) are commonly seen a retinal ganglion cell)18,23–25, but this is not universally accept-
in PNs of moths22,30. If PN/PN synchrony is not modulated by ed27. In an attempt to resolve these issues, we used intracellular
oscillations (which could arise from inhibitory feedback loops in recordings from glomerular output neurons to examine the
the glomerular neuropil), we reasoned that feed-forward inhibito- dynamic interactions that occur within and between two adja-
ry connections could serve to synchronize PNs. We therefore test- cent glomeruli with identified odor tuning.
ed whether the activity of one glomerulus was modulated by In the absence of odor, MGC-PNs in moths typically fire
inhibition from its neighbor. Simultaneous intracellular record- action potentials sporadically, and firing between PNs is asyn-
ings from neurons stimulated with the blend of odorants detected chronous (Fig. 1b). When presented with pulses of the correct
multiphasic responses comprising virtually identical, fast-onset olfactory stimulus, however, PNs synchronize their discharges in
IPSPs, followed by depolarizing EPSPs that gave rise to trains of response to each stimulus pulse (Fig. 1d), with PNs from the
action potentials in both neurons (Fig. 5a). In 12 pairs of odor- same glomerulus showing the highest correlations (Fig. 2a). The
ant-matched PNs, we measured the amplitudes of the IPSPs evoked enhanced precision of PN/PN spiking is therefore a potential
by the primary excitatory odorant to the neighboring glomeru- means of strengthening the spatial representation of the stimulus,
lus31. When the average values were plotted against the correlation which according to many recent imaging studies can be defined

562 nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002


by the specific glomerulus (or combination of glomeruli) encod- odorant, and more than half of these PN pairs showed signifi-
ing it19,32–34. In view of this capacity to modulate spike timing cantly greater synchronization in response to the blend of the
on a millisecond time scale, we propose that the MGC glomeruli two odorants (Fig. 4; Table 1). This finding provides new evi-
act as multifunctional coding modules in the brain, participat- dence that the temporal patterning of output from a given
ing in the simultaneous and parallel encoding of the different glomerulus may be further modulated by inhibitory input arising
attributes of the stimulus (quality, quantity and spatiotemporal from neighboring glomeruli18,23–25. Earlier single-unit studies in
features)11,12,22 inherent in a dynamic odor plume35. Our results moths showed that the timing of spike discharges in MGC-PNs is
showing tight correlations in spike timing between PNs with the modulated by bicuculline-sensitive, GABAA-like synapses from
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

same tuning characteristics provide new support for the long- LNs22,30,43. When these synapses are blocked pharmacological-
held hypothesis that olfactory glomeruli represent the funda- ly, the ability of MGC-PNs to resolve intermittent odor pulses
mental coding modules in early olfactory processing13,16,19,20,25. falls dramatically.
A testable circuit model that can help explain the possible
What coding functions might synchrony perform? organization of these inhibitory interglomerular interactions is
In other sensory systems, there is evidence that the incorporation shown in Fig. 5c. This model incorporates much of our current
of intercellular timing relations into a neural-population model knowledge of the connectivity that constitutes the processing net-
improves the accuracy of ensemble coding and thus facilitates works in MGC glomeruli (reviewed in ref. 22). The model shows
stimulus identification36,37. In motor cortex, the synchronization that when a blend of odorants is being processed, inhibition from
of spike activity between interneurons also facilitates the encoding one glomerulus could reset the timing of spike discharges in PNs
of arm movements by ensembles of neurons38. How might neur- activated in the neighboring glomerulus, thus aiding in their syn-
al synchronization function in encoding olfactory information? chronization. There are both similarities and differences between
Recent results from olfactory-bulb slice preparations show that this organization and that seen in the vertebrate retina. Like reti-
synchronous firing is consistently greater for intra- than for inter- nal ganglion cells, PNs in one glomerulus show enhanced tem-
glomerular pairs of M/T cells, but these studies did not involve poral tuning in the presence of inhibition from the neighboring
odor stimulation39,40. Our results here provide the first evidence glomerulus; unlike ganglion cells, PNs do not show a broaden-
from intracellular recordings that PNs innervating the same ing of their odor tuning in the absence of this inhibition.
glomerulus and tuned to the same odorant are more tightly syn- Although we cannot rule out the possibility that other cellular
chronized than pairs of PNs that process different olfactory inputs. or synaptic mechanisms promote synchronous firing between
This then raises the question: what specific function might PNs26,39,40, we believe that the BAL-evoked IPSP in cumulus PNs
intraglomerular synchrony serve? One suggestion is that it tem- and the C15-evoked IPSP in toroid PNs (Fig. 1c) could serve this
porally integrates information streams from select subsets of the resetting function22,31. Pharmacological experiments to test this
functionally diverse population of output neurons that arise from hypothesis are now in progress.
a single glomerulus41. Neural-ensemble recordings in the moth It must be noted that the principles outlined here for the
MGC11 recently showed that each brief stimulus pulse triggers a glomerular processing of pheromonal information are probably
transient burst of activity across the coding ensemble, but spe- not unique to these specialized odorants or to the sexually dimor-
cific features of the stimulus are encoded in the precise tempo- phic glomeruli dedicated to them. Data from both the MGC44,45
ral relationships superimposed on the ensemble. For example, and non-pheromonal glomeruli46 are consistent with the funda-
different subsets of PNs synchronize at different stimulus con- mental hypothesis that each glomerulus is an identifiable, func-
centrations, suggesting a functional partitioning within the tional unit dedicated to the processing of odorant-specific
glomerulus11. According to this organizational scheme, the com- information. Likewise, both pheromonal and non-pheromonal
plete ensemble could encode the odor signal as well as monitor its odorants activate an odor-specific ‘mosaic’ of antennal-lobe
concentration dynamics because different subsets of PNs would glomeruli in a reproducible pattern (reviewed in ref. 19). Using
synchronize as the ambient concentration of the stimulus multichannel electrode arrays11, we are now probing the hypoth-
changed. Synchronous firing across PNs may therefore help to esis of glomerular chemotopy by recording ensemble responses to
reinforce the spatially organized segregation of odorant-specific a wide array of odorants that are known to trigger activity from
signals encoded in each glomerulus13–20. Recent studies in the both broadly and narrowly tuned ORNs on the moth antennae47.
moth brain indicate that such segregation of odorant-specific We propose that in the context of a blended olfactory stimulus
pathways is maintained even at higher levels of sensory integra- (as typically found in nature), reciprocal inhibitory interactions
tion in the protocerebrum42. between glomeruli provide a temporal mechanism for strength-
Thus, in the moth olfactory system, evidence from both intra- ening the spatial representation of a complex stimulus by syn-
cellular and neural-ensemble recording studies indicates that the chronizing PNs, both within and between the population of
chemical identity of an odor is encoded spatially, according to activated glomeruli. Thus, although a single odorant evokes syn-
which glomeruli are activated (or inhibited) by the stimulus. chronization among outputs from the same glomerulus, the
Other key features of the stimulus (including odor intensity, blending of several odorants increases the probability of lateral
dynamics and the quality of specific odorant blends) are encod- inhibitory interactions between neighboring glomeruli, thereby
ed in specific temporal patterns of activity superimposed on the augmenting the temporal tuning of synchronous output from
spatial ensemble11,12,29,31. It has been suggested that if the target each participating glomerulus.
neurons in higher centers function as coincidence detectors, then Finally, do our results support the suggestion that lateral inhi-
synchronous input to these centers may facilitate the decoding bition operates between glomeruli in the olfactory system18,27?
of these different stimulus features18. Lateral-inhibitory interactions between MGC glomeruli do
indeed help to shape the temporal representations of pheromon-
Interglomerular inhibition shapes odor representations al stimuli, but not in the same sense that lateral inhibition in the
In all experiments involving BAL and C15, PNs that were depo- retina, for example, enhances the local spatial variations in an
larized by one of these odorants were hyperpolarized by the other antagonistic center-surround receptive field. In analogy to ‘on-

nature neuroscience • volume 5 no 6 • june 2002 563


center’ retinal ganglion cells that are hyperpolarized by illumi- potentials in LNs is about twice that of PNs43. These criteria were used as
nation of the surround48, MGC-PNs innervating one glomerulus reliable indicators of PNs in all experiments.
(for example, the toroid) are hyperpolarized by the olfactory Olfactory stimuli were delivered to the preparation as reported previ-
input to the neighboring glomerulus (the cumulus). Unlike the ously43. Pulses of air from a constant air stream were diverted through a
glass syringe containing a piece of filter paper to which was applied a sin-
receptive field organization of retinal ganglion cells, however, the
gle odorant (1 or 10 ng) or a blend of two odorants (1 or 10 ng of each).
responses of toroid PNs are not suppressed by uniform stimula- The odor stimulus was pulsed by means of a solenoid-activated valve
tion of the entire receptive field (that is, stimulation with a blend controlled by an electronic stimulator (W-P Instruments, Sarasota, Flori-
of BAL and C15, as in Fig. 4). Rather, the blend of odorants da). In every experiment, the outlet of the stimulus syringe was posi-
© 2002 Nature Publishing Group

specifically leads to an enhancement of synchronized firing tioned about 2 cm from and orthogonal to the center of the antennal
between glomerulus-specific PNs in both the cumulus and the flagellum ipsilateral to the impaled antennal lobe. Stimulus durations
toroid. Thus, reciprocal inhibition between glomeruli at this level varied from 50 ms to 5 s, and multiple odor pulses were separated by
of processing in the olfactory pathway serves to emphasize the intervals of 1 s or 1 min. The odor stimuli used were: (i) E,Z-10,12-hexa-
presence of the individual constituents of the blend, rather than decadienal (bombykal, BAL), the primary 16-carbon aldehyde compo-
to exaggerate the difference (or ‘contrast’) between the two odor- nent of the female’s sex pheromone; (ii) E,Z-11,13-pentadecadienal (C15),
a 15-carbon aldehyde mimic of the second essential component of the
ant molecules. Although this latter function may be reserved for
sex pheromone; and (iii) a mixture of BAL and C15 (blend). Although
higher levels of processing in the protocerebrum, inhibition in we substituted C15 for the natural pheromone component, we refer to
the antennal lobe is important for synchronizing glomerular out- both BAL and C15 as pheromone components.
put, thus enhancing the transmission of weak olfactory signals
and increasing stimulus contrast relative to background odors in Data analysis. Analog signals stored on FM tape were digitized at 20 KHz
the animal’s environment. per channel using Autospike (Syntech, Silversum, the Netherlands) or
Axoscope software (Axon Instruments, Foster City, California). Time
METHODS stamps representing the occurrence of each action potential in an intra-
Preparation. Manduca sexta (L.) (Lepidoptera: Sphingidae) were reared cellular trace were then analyzed with Neuroexplorer (Nex Technologies,
in the laboratory on artificial diet under a long-day photoperiod, and Winston-Salem, North Carolina). Cross-correlograms and correlation
adult male moths, 1–3 days after emergence, were prepared for experi- coefficients were calculated (5-ms bins) to help quantify synchrony
ments as described previously28,29. For electrophysiological recording, between two PNs. These data were corrected by subtracting shift-
the moth was restrained in a plastic tube with its head fully exposed. The predictor values to control for synchrony related solely to the timing of
labial palps, proboscis and cibarial musculature were then removed to the stimulus49. Dynamic correlations (or joint post-stimulus-time his-
allow access to the brain. To eliminate movement, the head was isolated tograms) were used to analyze the time course and temporal patterning
and pinned to a wax-coated glass Petri dish with the antennal lobes fac-