Fast-spiking interneurons and the critical period

How do children learn to play instruments and speak languages so much easier than adults, and why does brain damage result in worse outcomes in the mature brain vs. the young brain?  These questions are central to the study of how “critical periods” are regulated in the brain.


Electron micrograph from a single 70 nm cross-section through a fast-spiking parvalbumin-containing (gold labeling = white dots) presynaptic terminal forming a synapse (red dots) with a pyramidal soma. Original colors are inverted, contours have been raised and membranous structures are highlighted in aqua for ease of visualization. Presynaptic vesicles (colored ovals) within perisomatic fast spiking terminals mostly cluster within ∼200 nm of the synapse, with a few close enough (≤2 nm) to be deemed docked.

Critical periods in brain development define temporal windows when neuronal physiology and anatomy are most sensitive to changes in sensory input or experience (e.g. sound, touch, light, etc.).  The maturation of inhibitory cells that release the neurotransmitter GABA, especially a subset called fast-spiking (FS) interneurons, is thought to gate this period of neuronal ‘plasticity’ in the mammalian primary visual cortex.  However, it has remained unclear what aspects of FS cell development are important for permitting this period of neuronal malleability in the visual cortex. A new paper in Journal of Neuroscience from the Turrigiano lab addresses the question.

To explore how FS cell development might be linked to critical period plasticity, Brandeis postdoc Marc Nahmani and Professor Gina Turrigiano employed a well-established assay for cortical plasticity in visual cortex called monocular deprivation (MD), and measured FS cell connections using confocal and electron microscopy, as well as optogenetic stimulation of the FS cell population (i.e. shining light onto FS cells possessing light-gated channels to make them fire action potentials).

Following up on previous work from the Turrigiano lab (Maffei et al., 2006), they found that MD induces a coordinated increase in FS interneuron to pyramidal cell (the major excitatory output cells of the cortex) pre- and postsynaptic strength.  These changes occur if MD is performed during, but not before the critical period in visual cortex, suggesting they may play a role in gating this period of heightened neuronal plasticity.  Future studies are aimed at determining the timeline for these changes across the extent of the critical period in visual cortex.

see: Nahmani M, Turrigiano GG (2014) Deprivation-Induced Strengthening of Presynaptic and Postsynaptic Inhibitory Transmission in Layer 4 of Visual Cortex during the Critical Period. Journal of Neuroscience 34:2571-2582.

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