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Purves D, Augustine GJ, Fitzpatrick D, et al., editors. Neuroscience. 2nd edition. Sunderland (MA): Sinauer Associates; 2001.

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Neuroscience. 2nd edition.

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Summation of Synaptic Potentials

The postsynaptic effects of most synapses in the brain are not nearly as large as those at the neuromuscular junction; indeed, PSPs due to the activity of individual synapses are usually well below the threshold for generating postsynaptic action potentials, and may be only a fraction of a millivolt. How, then, can neurons in the brain transmit information from presynaptic to postsynaptic cells if most central synaptic effects are subthreshold? The answer is that neurons in the central nervous system are typically innervated by thousands of synapses, and the PSPs produced by each active synapse can sum together—in space and in time—to determine the behavior of the postsynaptic neuron.

Consider the highly simplified case of a neuron that is innervated by two excitatory synapses, each generating a subthreshold EPSP, and an inhibitory synapse that produces an IPSP (Figure 7.7A). While activation of either one of the excitatory synapses alone (E1 or E2 in Figure 7.7B) produces a subthreshold EPSP, activation of both excitatory synapses at about the same time causes the two EPSPs to sum together. If the sum of the two EPSPs (E1 + E2) depolarizes the postsynaptic neuron sufficiently to reach the threshold potential, a postsynaptic action potential results. Summation thus allows subthreshold EPSPs to influence action potential production. Likewise, an IPSP generated by an inhibitory synapse (I) can sum (algebraically speaking) with a subthreshold EPSP to reduce its amplitude (E1 + I) or can sum with suprathreshold EPSPs to prevent the postsynaptic neuron from reaching threshold (E1 + I + E2).

Figure 7.7. Summation of postsynaptic potentials.

Figure 7.7

Summation of postsynaptic potentials. (A) A microelectrode records the postsynaptic potentials produced by the activity of two excitatory synapses (E1 and E2) and an inhibitory synapse (I). (B) Electrical responses to synaptic activation. Stimulating (more...)

In short, the summation of EPSPs and IPSPs by a postsynaptic neuron permits a neuron to integrate the electrical information provided by all the inhibitory and excitatory synapses acting on it at any moment. Whether the sum of active synaptic inputs results in the production of an action potential depends on the balance between excitation and inhibition. If the sum of all EPSPs and IPSPs results in a depolarization of sufficient amplitude to raise the membrane potential above threshold, then the postsynaptic cell will produce an action potential. Conversely, if inhibition prevails, then the postsynaptic cell will remain silent. Normally, the balance between EPSPs and IPSPs changes continually over time, depending on the number of excitatory and inhibitory synapses active at a given moment and the magnitude of the current at each synapse. Summation is therefore a neurotransmitter-induced tug-of-war between all excitatory and inhibitory postsynaptic currents; the outcome of the contest determines whether or not a postsynaptic neuron becomes an active element in the neural circuit to which it belongs (Figure 7.8).

Figure 7.8. Events from neurotransmitter release to postsynaptic excitation or inhibition.

Figure 7.8

Events from neurotransmitter release to postsynaptic excitation or inhibition. Neurotransmitter release at all presynaptic terminals on a cell results in receptor binding, which causes the opening or closing of specific ion channels. The resulting conductance (more...)

By agreement with the publisher, this book is accessible by the search feature, but cannot be browsed.

Copyright © 2001, Sinauer Associates, Inc.
Bookshelf ID: NBK11104


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