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Modelling Feedback Excitation, Pacemaker Properties and Sensory Switching of Electrically Coupled Brainstem Neurons Controlling Rhythmic Activity

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Original languageEnglish
Article numbere1004702
JournalPLoS Computational Biology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 29 Jan 2016


What cellular and network properties allow reliable neuronal rhythm generation or firing that can be started and stopped by brief synaptic inputs? We investigate rhythmic activity in an electrically-coupled population of brainstem neurons driving swimming locomotion in young frog tadpoles, and how activity is switched on and off by brief sensory stimulation. We build a computational model of 30 electrically-coupled conditional pacemaker neurons on one side of the tadpole hindbrain and spinal cord. Based on experimental estimates for neuron properties, population sizes, synapse strengths and connections, we show that: long-lasting, mutual, glutamatergic excitation between the neurons allows the network to sustain rhythmic pacemaker firing at swimming frequencies following brief synaptic excitation; activity persists but rhythm breaks down without electrical coupling; NMDA voltage-dependency doubles the range of synaptic feedback strengths generating sustained rhythm. The network can be switched on and off at short latency by brief synaptic excitation and inhibition. We demonstrate that a population of generic Hodgkin-Huxley type neurons coupled by glutamatergic excitatory feedback can generate sustained asynchronous firing switched on and off synaptically. We conclude that networks of neurons with NMDAR mediated feedback excitation can generate self-sustained activity following brief synaptic excitation. The frequency of activity is limited by the kinetics of the neuron membrane channels and can be stopped by brief inhibitory input. Network activity can be rhythmic at lower frequencies if the neurons are electrically coupled. Our key finding is that excitatory synaptic feedback within a population of neurons can produce switchable, stable, sustained firing without synaptic inhibition.

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