Intracellular recordings were obtained from pyramidal neurons in layer 5 of rat somatosensory and visual cortical slices maintained in vitro. When directly depolarized, one subclass of pyramidal neurons had the capacity to generate intrinsic burst discharges and another generated regular trains of single spikes. Burst responses were triggered in an all-or-none manner from depolarizing afterpotentials in most bursting neurons. Regular spiking cells responded to electrical stimulation of ascending afferents with a typical EPSP-IPSP sequence, whereas IPSPs were hard to detect in bursting cells. Orthodromic activation of the latter evoked a prominent voltage-dependent depolarization that could trigger a burst response. Intracellularly labelled bursting and regular spiking cells were located in layer 5b, but had distinctly different morphologies. Bursting neurons had a large pyramidal soma, a gradually emerging apical dendrite, and an extensile apical and basal dendritic tree. Their axonal collateral arborization was predominantly limited to layers 5/6. In contrast, regular spiking cells had a more rounded soma with abruptly emerging apical dendrite, a smaller dendritic arborization, and 2 to 8 ascending axonal collaterals that arborized widely in the supragranular layers. Both bursting and regular spiking cells had main axons that entered the subcortical white matter.
These data show that some subgroups of pyramidal neurons within the deeper parts of layer 5 of rat cortex are morphologically and physiologically distinct and have different intracortical connections. Bursting cells presumably function to amplify and synchronize cortical outputs, whereas regular spiking output neurons provide excitatory feedback to neurons at all cortical levels and receive a more effective orthodromic inhibitory input. These data support the hypothesis that differences in gross neuronal structure, perhaps even the subtle differences that distinguish subclasses of neurons in a given lamina, are predictive of underlying differences in the type and distribution of ion channels in the nerve cell membrane and connections of cells within the cortical circuit.