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J Neurosci. 2011 Feb 16;31(7):2391-8. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3886-10.2011.

Spontaneous electrical activity in the human fetal cortex in vitro.

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Department of Neuroscience, University of Connecticut Health Center, Farmington, Connecticut 06030, USA.


Our knowledge about the developing human cerebral cortex is based on the analysis of fixed postmortem material. Here we use electrical recordings from unfixed human postmortem tissue to characterize the synaptic physiology and spontaneous network activity of pioneer cortical neurons ("subplate neurons"). Our electrophysiological experiments show that functional glutamate or GABA ionotropic receptors are expressed on human subplate (SP) neurons as early as 20 gestational weeks. Extracellular (synaptic) stimulations evoked postsynaptic potentials in a very small fraction of SP neurons, suggesting that functional synaptic contacts are rare at midgestation. Although synaptic inputs were scarce, we regularly observed spontaneous (unprovoked) electrical activity among human SP neurons, comprised of sustained plateau depolarizations and bursts of action potential firing, which resembled cortical UP and DOWN states in the adult neocortex. Plateau depolarizations and bursts of action potential firing are thought to depend on the mature morphology and physiology of adult cortical network. However, our current data reveal that similar cortical rhythm is generated by a very immature ensemble of human fetal neurons. In the relative absence of sensory inputs, as in development in utero, or in slow-wave sleep (i.e., throughout the entire lifespan), the spontaneous slow oscillatory pattern (UP and DOWN states) is a fundamental aspect of human cortical physiology.

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