The integrative properties of starburst amacrine cells in the rabbit retina were studied with compartmental models and computer-simulation techniques. The anatomical basis for these simulations was provided by computer reconstructions of intracellularly stained starburst amacrine cells and published data on dendritic diameter and biophysical properties. Passive and active membrane properties were included to simulate spiking and nonspiking behavior. Simulated synaptic inputs into one or more compartments consisted of a bipolar-like conductance change with peak and steady-state components provided by the sum of two Gaussian responses. Simulated impulse generation was achieved by using a model of impulse generation that included five nonlinear channels (INa, ICa, Ia,. Ik. Ik.Ca). The magnitude of the sodium channel conductance change was altered to meet several different types of impulse generation and propagation behaviors. We studied a range of model constraints which included variations in membrane resistance (Rm) from 4,000 Ω.cm2 to 100,000 Ω.cm2, and dendritic diameter from 0.1 to 0.3 μm. In a separate series of simulations, we studied the feasibility of voltage-clamping starburst amacrine cells using a soma-applied, single-electrode voltage clamp, based on models with and without dendritic and somatic spiking behavior. Our simulation studies suggest that single dendrites of starburst amacrine cells can behave as independent functional subunits when the Rm is high, provided that one or a small number of dendrites is synaptically co-activated. However, as the number of co-activated dendrites increases, the starburst cell behavior becomes more uniform and independent dendritic function is less prevalent. The presence of impulse activity in the dendrites raises new questions about dendritic function. However, dendritic impulses do not necessarily eliminate independent dendritic function, because dendritic impulses commonly fail as they propagate toward the soma, where they contribute EPSP-like responses which summate with conventional synaptic currents.
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