The autonomous firing pattern of neurons in the rat subthalamic nucleus (STN) is shaped by action potential afterhyperpolarization currents. One of these is an apamin-sensitive calcium-dependent potassium current (SK). The duration of SK current is usually considered to be limited by the clearance of calcium from the vicinity of the channel. When the cell is driven to fire faster, calcium is expected to accumulate, and this is expected to result in accumulation of calcium-dependent AHP current. We measured the time course of calcium transients in the soma and proximal dendrites of STN neurons during spontaneous firing and their accumulation during driven firing. We compared these to the time course and accumulation of AHP currents using whole-cell and perforated patch recordings. During spontaneous firing, a rise in free cytoplasmic calcium was seen after each action potential, and decayed with a time constant of about 200 ms in the soma, and 80 ms in the dendrites. At rates higher than 10 Hz, calcium transients accumulated as predicted. In addition, there was a slow calcium transient not predicted by summation of action potentials that became more pronounced at high firing frequency. Spike AHP currents were measured in voltage clamp as tail currents after 2 ms voltage pulses that triggered action currents. Apamin-sensitive AHP (SK) current was measured by subtraction of tail currents obtained before and after treatment with apamin. SK current peaked between 10 and 15 ms after an action potential, had a decay time constant of about 30 ms, and showed no accumulation. At frequencies between 5 and 200 spikes s-1, the maximal SK current remained the same as that evoked by a single action potential. AHP current did not have time to decay between action potentials, so at frequencies above 50 spikes s-1 the apamin-sensitive current was effectively constant. These results are inconsistent with the view that the decay of SK current is governed by calcium dynamics. They suggest that the calcium is present at the SK channel for a very short time after each action potential, and the current decays at a rate set by the deactivation kinetics of the SK channel. At high rates, repetitive firing was governed by a fast apamin-insensitive AHP current that did not accumulate, but rather showed depression with increases in activation frequency. A slowly accumulating AHP current, also insensitive to apamin, was extremely small at low rates but became significant with higher firing rates.
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