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J Physiol. 2018 May 1;596(9):1681-1697. doi: 10.1113/JP275240. Epub 2018 Feb 21.

Origin of heterogeneous spiking patterns from continuously distributed ion channel densities: a computational study in spinal dorsal horn neurons.

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Neurosciences and Mental Health, The Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto, Canada.
Department of Physiology and the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada.



Distinct spiking patterns may arise from qualitative differences in ion channel expression (i.e. when different neurons express distinct ion channels) and/or when quantitative differences in expression levels qualitatively alter the spike generation process. We hypothesized that spiking patterns in neurons of the superficial dorsal horn (SDH) of spinal cord reflect both mechanisms. We reproduced SDH neuron spiking patterns by varying densities of KV 1- and A-type potassium conductances. Plotting the spiking patterns that emerge from different density combinations revealed spiking-pattern regions separated by boundaries (bifurcations). This map suggests that certain spiking pattern combinations occur when the distribution of potassium channel densities straddle boundaries, whereas other spiking patterns reflect distinct patterns of ion channel expression. The former mechanism may explain why certain spiking patterns co-occur in genetically identified neuron types. We also present algorithms to predict spiking pattern proportions from ion channel density distributions, and vice versa.


Neurons are often classified by spiking pattern. Yet, some neurons exhibit distinct patterns under subtly different test conditions, which suggests that they operate near an abrupt transition, or bifurcation. A set of such neurons may exhibit heterogeneous spiking patterns not because of qualitative differences in which ion channels they express, but rather because quantitative differences in expression levels cause neurons to operate on opposite sides of a bifurcation. Neurons in the spinal dorsal horn, for example, respond to somatic current injection with patterns that include tonic, single, gap, delayed and reluctant spiking. It is unclear whether these patterns reflect five cell populations (defined by distinct ion channel expression patterns), heterogeneity within a single population, or some combination thereof. We reproduced all five spiking patterns in a computational model by varying the densities of a low-threshold (KV 1-type) potassium conductance and an inactivating (A-type) potassium conductance and found that single, gap, delayed and reluctant spiking arise when the joint probability distribution of those channel densities spans two intersecting bifurcations that divide the parameter space into quadrants, each associated with a different spiking pattern. Tonic spiking likely arises from a separate distribution of potassium channel densities. These results argue in favour of two cell populations, one characterized by tonic spiking and the other by heterogeneous spiking patterns. We present algorithms to predict spiking pattern proportions based on ion channel density distributions and, conversely, to estimate ion channel density distributions based on spiking pattern proportions. The implications for classifying cells based on spiking pattern are discussed.


Neuronal excitability; Spinal cord; classification; computational modeling; dorsal horn; spiking pattern

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