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In several neuronal types of the CNS, glutamate and GABA receptors mediate a persistent current which reflects the presence of a low concentration of transmitters in the extracellular space. Here, we further characterize the tonic current mediated by ambient glutamate in rat hippocampal slices. A tonic current of small amplitude (53.99 ± 6.48 pA at +40 mV) with the voltage dependency and the pharmacology of NMDA receptors (NMDARs) was detected in virtually all pyramidal cells of the CA1 and subiculum areas. Manipulations aiming at increasing d-serine or glycine extracellular concentrations failed to modify this current indicating that the glycine binding sites of the NMDARs mediating the tonic current were saturated. In contrast, non-transportable inhibitors of glutamate transporters increased the amplitude of this tonic current, indicating that the extracellular concentration of glutamate primarily regulates its magnitude. Neither AMPA/kainate receptors nor metabotropic glutamate receptors contributed significantly to this tonic excitation of pyramidal neurons. In the presence of glutamate transporter inhibitors, however, a significant proportion of the tonic conductance was mediated by AMPA receptors. The tonic current was unaffected when inhibiting vesicular release of transmitters from neurons but was increased upon inhibition of the enzyme converting glutamate in glutamine in glial cells. These observations indicate that ambient glutamate is mainly of glial origin. Finally, experiments with the use-dependent antagonist MK801 indicated that NMDARs mediating the tonic conductance are probably extra-synaptic NMDARs.