• Keywords: asymmetric synapses;
  • inhibitory interneurons;
  • parvalbumin;
  • somatosensory cortex;
  • thalamocortical connections


The spatial synaptic pattern formed by boutons, originating in the ventroposteromedial thalamic nucleus, with GABAergic neurons in the rat barrel cortex was mapped. The aim was to shed light on the structural basis by which inhibitory circuits may be activated at the first stage of cortical information processing. The thalamic afferent projection was labelled by anterograde transport of Phaseolus vulgaris leucoagglutinin (PHA-L), whereas the GABAergic targets in layer IV of the rat barrel cortex were visualized by postembedding GABA immunogold-labelling or by pre-embedding parvalbumin immunocytochemistry. In the first set of experiments, we mapped barrels, contained in single ultrathin sections, by means of a computer-controlled electron microscope stage in their entire layer IV representation. From a total of 1199 asymmetric PHA-L-labelled synapses, only 98 were on GABAergic elements, mainly on dendritic shafts. This corresponded to 8.2% of all synapses counted. These synapses on GABAergic targets were essentially homogeneously distributed without a reliable relationship to barrel subdivisions, i.e. hollow versus wall; or layer IVa versus layer IVb. In the second part of the study, we demonstrated that parvalbumin-containing neurons represent the major GABAergic cell type targetted by thalamic afferents in layer IV of the barrel cortex, since all parvalbumin-positive cells investigated received multiple synaptic contacts (up to eight synapses per neuron) from the ventroposteromedial thalamic nucleus. These results imply that interneurons responsible for perisomatic inhibition (basket and chandelier cells known to contain parvalbumin) are likely to be strongly excited by thalamic afferents, despite the relatively low proportion of thalamic synapses on GABAergic elements compared to spines of principal cells, and participate in the early stages of cortical sensory information processing.