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J Neurosci. 1996 May 15;16(10):3209-18.

Frequency and dendritic distribution of autapses established by layer 5 pyramidal neurons in the developing rat neocortex: comparison with synaptic innervation of adjacent neurons of the same class.

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  • 1Anatomisches Institut, Albert-Ludwigs Universit at Freiburg, Germany.


Synaptic contacts formed by the axon of a neuron on its own dendrites are known as autapses. Autaptic contacts occur frequently in cultured neurons and have been considered to be aberrant structures. We examined the regular occurrence, dendritic distribution, and fine structure of autapses established on layer 5 pyramidal neurons in the developing rat neocortex. Whole-cell recordings were made from single neurons and synaptically coupled pairs of pyramidal cells, which were filled with biocytin, morphologically reconstructed, and quantitatively analyzed. Autapses were found in most neurons (in 80% of all cells analyzed; n = 41). On average, 2.3 +/- 0.9 autapses per neuron were found, located primarily on basal dendrites (64%; 50-70 microns from the soma), to a lesser extent on apical oblique dendrites (31%; 130-200 microns from the soma), and rarely on the main apical dendrite (5% 480-540 microns from the soma). About three times more synaptic than autaptic contacts (ratio 2.4:1) were formed by a single adjacent synaptically coupled neuron of the same type. The dendritic locations of these synapses were remarkably similar to those of autapses. Electron microscopic examination of serial ultrathin sections confirmed the formation of autapses and synapses, respectively, and showed that both types of contacts were located either on dendritic spines or shafts. The similarities between autapses and synapses suggest that autaptic and synaptic circuits are governed by some common principles of synapse formation.

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