Neuroscientists identify class of cortical inhibitory neurons that specialize in disinhibition

New research now reveals that one class of inhibitory neurons—called VIP interneurons—specializes in inhibiting other inhibitory neurons in multiple regions of cortex, and does so under specific behavioral conditions. The new research finds that VIP interneurons, when activated, release principal cells from inhibition, thus boosting their responses. This provides an additional layer of control over cortical processing, much like a dimmer switch can fine-tune light levels.

The cerebral contains two major types of neurons: principal neurons that are excitatory and that are inhibitory, all interconnected within the same network. New research now reveals that one class of inhibitory neurons – called VIP interneurons—specializes in inhibiting other inhibitory neurons in multiple regions of cortex, and does so under specific behavioral conditions.

The new research finds that VIP interneurons, when activated, release principal cells from inhibition, thus boosting their responses. This provides an additional layer of control over cortical processing, much like a dimmer switch can fine-tune light levels.

The discovery was made by a team of neuroscientists at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) led by Associate Professor Adam Kepecs, Ph.D. Their research, published online today in Nature, shows that neurons expressing vasoactive intestinal polypeptide, or VIP, provide disinhibition in the auditory cortex and the medial prefrontal cortex.

The researchers used molecular tagging techniques developed by team member Z. Josh Huang, a CSHL Professor, to single out VIP-expressing neurons in the vast diversity of cortical neurons. This enabled Kepecs' group, led by postdocs Hyun Jae Pi and Balazs Hangya, to employ advanced optogenetic techniques using color-coded laser light to specifically activate VIP neurons. The activity of the cells was monitored via electrophysiological recordings in behaving animals to study their function, and in vitro to probe their circuit properties.

These VIP neurons are long sought "disinhibitory" cells: they inhibit other classes of ; but they do not directly cause excitation to occur in brain. Dr. Kepecs and colleagues propose that the disinhibitory control mediated by VIP neurons represents a fundamental "motif" in .

The difference between neural excitation and disinhibition is akin to the difference between hitting the gas pedal and taking your foot off the breaks. Cells that specialize in releasing the brakes, Dr. Kepecs explains, provide the means for balancing between excitation and inhibition. Kepecs calls this function "gain modulation," which brings to mind the fine control that a dimmer switch provides.

The team wondered when VIP neurons are activated during behavior. When, in other words, is the cortical "dimmer switch" engaged? To learn the answer, the scientists recorded VIP neurons while mice were making simple decisions, discriminating between sounds of different pitches. When they made correct choices, the mice earned a drop of water; for incorrect choices, a mild puff of air. Surprisingly, the team found that in , a region involved in processing sounds, VIP neurons were activated by rewards and punishments. Thus these neurons appeared to mediate the impact of reinforcements and acted to "turn up the lights" on principal cells, to use the dimmer-switch analogy.

"Linking specific neuronal types to well-defined behaviors has proved extremely difficult," says Kepecs. These results, he says, potentially link the circuit-function of VIP in gain control to an important behavioral function: learning.

More information: "Cortical interneurons that specialize in disinhibitory control" appears online ahead of print in Nature October 6, 2013. dx.doi.org/.10.1038/nature12676

Related Stories

Recommended for you

'Chatty' cells help build the brain

1 hour ago

The cerebral cortex, which controls higher processes such as perception, thought and cognition, is the most complex structure in the mammalian central nervous system. Although much is known about the intricate ...

'Trigger' for stress processes discovered in the brain

16 hours ago

At the Center for Brain Research at the MedUni Vienna an important factor for stress has been identified in collaboration with the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm (Sweden). This is the protein secretagogin ...

New research supporting stroke rehabilitation

Nov 26, 2014

Using world-leading research methods, the team of Dr David Wright and Prof Paul Holmes, working with Dr Jacqueline Williams from the Victoria University in Melbourne, studied activity in an area of the brain ...

User comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.