When is an inhibitory synapse effective?

Ning Qian and Terrence J. Sejnowski, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 1990, 87:8145-8149. Download the full paper (PDF file)


Interactions between excitatory and inhibitory synaptic inputs on dendrites determine the level of activity in neurons. Models based on the cable equation predict that silent shunting inhibition can strongly veto the effect of an excitatory input. The cable model assumes that ionic concentrations do not change during the electrical activity, which may not be a valid assumption, especially for small structures such as dendritic spines. We present here an analysis and computer simulations to show that for large Cl- conductance changes, the more general Nernst-Planck electrodiffusion model predicts that shunting inhibition on spines should be much less effective than that predicted by the cable model. This is a consequence of the large changes in the intracellular ionic concentration of Cl- that can occur in small structures, which would alter the reversal potential and reduce the driving force for Cl-. Shunting inhibition should therefore not be effective on spines, but it could be significantly more effective on the dendritic shaft at the base of the spine. In contrast to shunting inhibition, hyperpolarizing synaptic inhibition mediated by K+ currents can be very effective in reducing the excitatory synaptic potentials on the same spine if the excitatory conductance change is less than 10 nS. We predict that if the inhibitory synapses found on cortical spines are to be effective, then they should be mediated by K+ through GABAB receptors.

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