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Burst and tonic firing in thalamic cells of unanesthetized, behaving monkeys



Thalamic relay cells fire in two distinct modes, burst or tonic, and the operative mode is dictated by the inactivation state of low-threshold, voltage-gated, transient (or T-type) Ca2+ channels. Tonic firing is seen when the T channels are inactivated via membrane depolarization, and burst firing is seen when the T channels are activated from a hyperpolarized state. These response modes have very different effects on the relay of information to the cortex. It had been thought that only tonic firing is seen in the awake, alert animal, but recent evidence from several species suggests that bursting may also occur. We have begun to explore this issue in macaque monkeys by recording from thalamic relay cells of unanesthetized, behaving animals. In the lateral geniculate nucleus, the thalamic relay for retinal information, we found that tonic mode dominated responses both during alert behavior as well as during sleep. We nonetheless found burst firing present during the vigilant, waking state. There was, however, considerably more burst mode firing during sleep than wakefulness. Surprisingly, we did not find the bursting during sleep to be rhythmic. We also recorded from relay cells of the somatosensory thalamus. Interestingly, not only did these somatosensory neurons exhibit much more burst mode activity than did geniculate cells, but bursting during sleep was highly rhythmic. It thus appears that the level and nature of relay cell bursting may not be constant across all thalamic nuclei.


Corresponding author

Address correspondence and reprint requests to: S.M. Sherman, Department of Neurobiology, State University of New York, Stony Brook, NY 11794-5230, USA. E-mail:



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