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J Neurosci. 2011 Feb 23;31(8):2925-37. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.5961-10.2011.

How thalamus connects to spiny stellate cells in the cat's visual cortex.

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Institute for Neuroinformatics, University of Zürich, 8057 Zürich, Switzerland.


In the cat's visual cortex, the responses of simple cells seem to be totally determined by their thalamic input, yet only a few percent of the excitatory synapses in layer 4 arise from the thalamus. To resolve this discrepancy between structure and function, we used correlated light and electron microscopy to search individual spiny stellate cells (simple cells) for possible structural features that would explain the biophysical efficacy of the thalamic input, such as synaptic location on dendrites, size of postsynaptic densities, and postsynaptic targets. We find that thalamic axons form a small number of synapses with the spiny stellates (188 on average), that the median size of the synapses is slightly larger than that of other synapses on the dendrites of spiny stellates, that they are not located particularly proximal to the soma, and that they do not cluster on the dendrites. These findings point to alternative mechanisms, such as synchronous activation of the sparse thalamic synapses to boost the efficacy of the thalamic input. The results also support the idea that the thalamic input does not by itself determine the cortical response of spiny stellate cells, allowing the cortical microcircuit to amplify and modulate its response according to the particular context and computation being performed.

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