Cortical neurons and networks are dormant but fully responsive during isoelectric brain state

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A continuous isoelectric electroencephalogram reflects an interruption of endogenously-generated activity in cortical networks and systematically results in a complete dissolution of conscious processes. This electro-cerebral inactivity occurs during various brain disorders, including hypothermia, drug intoxication, long-lasting anoxia and brain trauma. It can also be induced in a therapeutic context, following the administration of high doses of barbiturate-derived compounds, to interrupt a hyper-refractory status epilepticus. Although altered sensory responses can be occasionally observed on an isoelectric electroencephalogram, the electrical membrane properties and synaptic responses of individual neurons during this cerebral state remain largely unknown. The aim of the present study was to characterize the intracellular correlates of a barbiturate-induced isoelectric electroencephalogram and to analyse the sensory-evoked synaptic responses that can emerge from a brain deprived of spontaneous electrical activity. We first examined the sensory responsiveness from patients suffering from intractable status epilepticus and treated by administration of thiopental. Multimodal sensory responses could be evoked on the flat electroencephalogram, including visually-evoked potentials that were significantly amplified and delayed, with a high trial-to-trial reproducibility compared to awake healthy subjects. Using an analogous pharmacological procedure to induce prolonged electro-cerebral inactivity in the rat, we could describe its cortical and subcortical intracellular counterparts. Neocortical, hippocampal and thalamo-cortical neurons were all silent during the isoelectric state and displayed a flat membrane potential significantly hyperpolarized compared with spontaneously active control states. Nonetheless, all recorded neurons could fire action potentials in response to intracellularly injected depolarizing current pulses and their specific intrinsic electrophysiological features were preserved. Manipulations of the membrane potential and intracellular injection of chloride in neocortical neurons failed to reveal an augmented synaptic inhibition during the isoelectric condition. Consistent with the sensory responses recorded from comatose patients, large and highly reproducible somatosensory-evoked potentials could be generated on the inactive electrocorticogram in rats. Intracellular recordings revealed that the underlying neocortical pyramidal cells responded to sensory stimuli by complex synaptic potentials able to trigger action potentials. As in patients, sensory responses in the isoelectric state were delayed compared to control responses and exhibited an elevated reliability during repeated stimuli. Our findings demonstrate that during prolonged isoelectric brain state neurons and synaptic networks are dormant rather than excessively inhibited, conserving their intrinsic properties and their ability to integrate and propagate environmental stimuli.

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