Electrical synapses and the development of inhibitory circuits in the thalamus

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Neurons within the mature thalamic reticular nucleus (TRN) powerfully inhibit ventrobasal (VB) thalamic relay neurons via GABAergic synapses. TRN neurons are also coupled to one another by electrical synapses that depend strongly on the gap junction protein connexin36 (Cx36). Electrical synapses in the TRN precede the postnatal development of TRN-to-VB inhibition. We investigated how the deletion of Cx36 affects the maturation of TRN and VB neurons, electrical coupling and GABAergic synapses by studying wild-type (WT) and Cx36 knockout (KO) mice. The incidence and strength of electrical coupling in TRN was sharply reduced, but not abolished, in KO mice. Surprisingly, electrical synapses between Cx36-KO neurons had faster voltage-dependent decay kinetics and conductance asymmetry (rectification) than did electrical synapses between WT neurons. The properties of TRN-mediated inhibition in VB also depended on the Cx36 genotype. Deletion of Cx36 increased the frequency and shifted the amplitude distributions of miniature IPSCs, whereas the paired-pulse ratio of evoked IPSCs was unaffected, suggesting that the absence of Cx36 led to an increase in GABAergic synaptic contacts. VB neurons from Cx36-KO mice also tended to have simpler dendritic trees and fewer divergent inputs from the TRN compared to WT cells. The findings obtained in the present study suggest that proper development of thalamic inhibitory circuitry, neuronal morphology, TRN cell function and electrical coupling requires Cx36. In the absence of Cx36, some TRN neurons express asymmetric electrical coupling mediated by other unidentified connexin subtypes.

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