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Biophys J. 1997 Dec;73(6):2874-90.

The effects of geometrical parameters on synaptic transmission: a Monte Carlo simulation study.

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Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy, Allegheny University of the Health Sciences, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19129, USA.


Monte Carlo simulations of transmitter diffusion and its interactions with postsynaptic receptors have been used to study properties of quantal responses at central synapses. Fast synaptic responses characteristic of those recorded at glycinergic junctions on the teleost Mauthner cell (time to peak approximately 0.3-0.4 ms and decay time constant approximately 3-6 ms) served as the initial reference, and smaller contacts with fewer postsynaptic receptors were also modeled. Consistent with experimental findings, diffusion, simulated using a random walk algorithm and assuming a diffusion coefficient of 0.5-1.0 x 10(-5) cm2 s(-1), was sufficiently fast to account for transmitter removal from the synaptic cleft. Transmitter-receptor interactions were modeled as a two-step binding process, with the double-bound state having opened and closed conformations. Addition of a third binding step only slightly decreased response amplitude but significantly slowed both its rising and decay phases. The model allowed us to assess the sources of response variability and the likelihood of postsynaptic saturation as functions of multiple kinetic and spatial parameters. The method of nonstationary fluctuation analysis, typically used to estimate the number of functional channels at a synapse and single channel current, proved unreliable, presumably because the receptors in the postsynaptic matrix are not uniformly exposed to the same profile of transmitter concentration. Thus, the time course of the probability of channel opening most likely varies among receptors. Finally, possible substrates for phenomena of synaptic plasticity, such as long-term potentiation, were explored, including the diameter of the contact zone, defined by the region of pre- and postsynaptic apposition, the number and distribution of the receptors, and the degree of vesicle filling. Surprisingly, response amplitude is quite sensitive to the size of the receptor-free annulus surrounding the receptor cluster, such that expansion of the contact zone could produce an appreciable increase in quantal size, normally attributed to either the presence of more receptors or the release of more transmitter molecules.

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