Structure and dynamics of the neocortical microcircuit connectivity

The neocortex is the most computationally advanced portion of the brain. It is currently assumed to be composed of a large number of "cortical columns" – intricate arrangements of cortical neurons approximately 300-500 µm in diameter and 2-5 mm in height in humans – that might serve as the elementary computational unit of the neocortex. Understanding the computation performed by this microcircuit is one of the keys to our comprehension of the brain. The so-called cortical column is not a static entity, however, and it evolves throughout a lifetime and continually adapts to the information from its cortical environment. Despite the differences between cortical columns across the cortex, a number of common features have been identified: a laminar structure, the dynamics of connections between identified neurons or the mechanisms for these connections to be modified (that give its specificity to each microcircuit). This thesis presents the description of the differential connectivity and synaptic dynamics across cell populations and the long term neuronal rewiring in a particular neuronal population within the cortical column. Somatic whole cell recordings have been performed to probe the connectivity, synaptic dynamics and plasticity of the connections in the rat neocortex. Two populations of layer V pyramidal neurons were studied in particular: cortico-callosally projecting pyramidal cells (CCPs) and thick tufted pyramidal cells (TTCs). The first major results from this work revealed the degree of connectivity and the linear dynamics of the CCPs population when compared to the TTCs. CCPs have nearly 4 times fewer interconnections and subsequent post-synaptic potentials were less decreasing in amplitude along a pre-synaptic series of action potentials. Long term configuration of TTC networks was explored. These experiments show for the first time the emergence of new functional synaptic connections between TTCs within hours. Activation of the slice by glutamate greatly increases their rate of emergence and this work demonstrated that metabotropic glutamate receptor 5 (mGluR5) activation and action potential firing are required for new connections to be formed in this experimental protocol. Newly formed connections respond in a more linear fashion and have weaker post-synaptic influence than already existing connections. Pre-existing connections are also modified after stimulation, requiring mGluR5, action potentials as well as α-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazole-propionic acid (AMPA) and N-methyl-D-aspartic acid (NMDA) receptors activation. The activation of group III metabotropic glutamate receptors (mGluRs) however results in a decrease in the strength of connections. Finally, the influence of inhibitory interneurons on the activity and connectivity between TTCs was also investigated. The results of this study show that firing of inhibitory interneurons can be triggered by the input of only one pyramidal cell. They further show that stimulation of a single TTC can result in an hyperpolarization of the post-synaptic TTC mediated by an interneurone. When the pre-synaptic neuron is also directly connected to the post-synaptic neuron with an excitatory synapse, the indirect inhibitory connection serves to curtail the excitatory response. This work has provided a new insight into the dynamic nature of the cortical microcircuitry, showing that it evolves rapidly and can adapt, reconfigure and rewire itself in remarkably short time-spans. It also describes the variety of dynamics exhibited by the different types of pyramidal cells, due to either the projecting site specificity or to the action of an intermediate interneuron.

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