On the Fight Between Excitation and Inhibition: Location Is Everything

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Science's STKE  14 Sep 2004:
Vol. 2004, Issue 250, pp. pe44
DOI: 10.1126/stke.2502004pe44

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In the intact brain, neurons are constantly subjected to both excitatory and inhibitory inputs to their dendritic trees. Although it is accepted that the overall response of a neuron--its train of output spikes--depends on the balance of excitation and inhibition, we continue to lack specific knowledge of the rules that govern how excitatory and inhibitory inputs interact in space and time within the confines of individual neurons. In a recent paper, Liu starts by providing evidence that the relative locations and numbers of excitatory and inhibitory synapses are tightly regulated in cultured neurons from the hippocampus. This is consistent with findings in other labs that suggest neurons work hard, and in a variety of different ways, to maintain their inputs in proper balance and their outputs within appropriate ranges. On this backdrop, Liu's most important finding of a functional nature is that inhibition appears to act quite locally; that is, an inhibitory synapse effectively opposes an excitatory synapse only when it is very close by within the same dendritic branch (Fig. 1). This finding provides further support for the view--anticipated by neural theorists more than 20 years ago--that the brain's principal neurons contain a potentially large number of separate computational subunits.

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