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J Neurophysiol. 2015 Apr 1;113(7):2195-209. doi: 10.1152/jn.00716.2014. Epub 2015 Jan 14.

Acetylcholine excites neocortical pyramidal neurons via nicotinic receptors.

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Department of Physiology, Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University, Chicago, Illinois.
Department of Physiology, Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University, Chicago, Illinois


The neuromodulator acetylcholine (ACh) shapes neocortical function during sensory perception, motor control, arousal, attention, learning, and memory. Here we investigate the mechanisms by which ACh affects neocortical pyramidal neurons in adult mice. Stimulation of cholinergic axons activated muscarinic and nicotinic ACh receptors on pyramidal neurons in all cortical layers and in multiple cortical areas. Nicotinic receptor activation evoked short-latency, depolarizing postsynaptic potentials (PSPs) in many pyramidal neurons. Nicotinic receptor-mediated PSPs promoted spiking of pyramidal neurons. The duration of the increase in spiking was membrane potential dependent, with nicotinic receptor activation triggering persistent spiking lasting many seconds in neurons close to threshold. Persistent spiking was blocked by intracellular BAPTA, indicating that nicotinic ACh receptor activation evoked persistent spiking via a long-lasting calcium-activated depolarizing current. We compared nicotinic PSPs in primary motor cortex (M1), prefrontal cortex (PFC), and visual cortex. The laminar pattern of nicotinic excitation was not uniform but was broadly similar across areas, with stronger modulation in deep than superficial layers. Superimposed on this broad pattern were local differences, with nicotinic PSPs being particularly large and common in layer 5 of M1 but not layer 5 of PFC or primary visual cortex (V1). Hence, in addition to modulating the excitability of pyramidal neurons in all layers via muscarinic receptors, synaptically released ACh preferentially increases the activity of deep-layer neocortical pyramidal neurons via nicotinic receptors, thereby adding laminar selectivity to the widespread enhancement of excitability mediated by muscarinic ACh receptors.


acetylcholine; neocortical pyramidal neurons; nicotinic acetylcholine receptor

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