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Keywords:

  • synaptic mechanisms;
  • unitary EPSCs;
  • quantal analysis;
  • CA1 pyramidal cells;
  • dentate granule cells

Abstract

Transmission at excitatory synapses in the mammalian brain is thought to depend on the release of transmitter quanta through exocytosis of presynaptic vesicles (Katz, 1969). The number of vesicles released by a single presynaptic action potential is important for understanding the impact of a single synapse, and the variability in transmission from one impulse to the next. In addition, the number of vesicles released may be an important factor for synaptic regulation and plasticity, such as facilitation, post-tetanic potentiation and long-term potentiation (LTP). Three recent studies suggest that an increase in the number of transmitter quanta underlies hippocampal LTP (Malinow and Tsien, 1990; Bekkers and Stevens 1990; Malinow, 1991), whereas other reports suggest a postsynaptic mechanism (Kauer et al 1988; Muller et al, 1988; Foster and McNaughton, 1989). We have used the whole-cell recording technique to compare putative quantal and single fibre responses at excitatory synapses in rat hippocampal slices, and find (i) a surprisingly large variability in single fibre excitatory postsynaptic currents (sfEPSCs); (ii) an equally large variability of putative quantal (pq) EPSCs elicited by hyperosmolar media or ruthenium red; (iii) the observed amplitude ranges for the sfEPSCs and the pqEPSCs overlap almost completely; and (iv) in neither case can the variability be attributed to a scatter in electrotonic distance from the soma of the engaged synapses. Thus, the data are compatible with the hypothesis that a presynaptic action potential usually releases only a single quantum. Other possibilities are also discussed.