In hippocampal CA1 pyramidal neurons, action potentials are typically initiated in the axon and backpropagate into the dendrites, shaping the integration of synaptic activity and influencing the induction of synaptic plasticity. Despite previous reports describing action-potential propagation in the proximal apical dendrites, the extent to which action potentials invade the distal dendrites of CA1 pyramidal neurons remains controversial. Using paired somatic and dendritic whole cell recordings, we find that in the dendrites proximal to 280 μm from the soma, single backpropagating action potentials exhibit <50% attenuation from their amplitude in the soma. However, in dendritic recordings distal to 300 μm from the soma, action potentials in most cells backpropagated either strongly (26-42% attenuation; n = 9/20) or weakly (71-87% attenuation; n = 10/20) with only one cell exhibiting an intermediate value (45% attenuation). In experiments combining dual somatic and dendritic whole cell recordings with calcium imaging, the amount of calcium influx triggered by backpropagating action potentials was correlated with the extent of action-potential invasion of the distal dendrites. Quantitative morphometric analyses revealed that the dichotomy in action-potential backpropagation occurred in the presence of only subtle differences in either the diameter of the primary apical dendrite or branching pattern. In addition, action-potential backpropagation was not dependent on a number of electrophysiological parameters (input resistance, resting potential, voltage sensitivity of dendritic spike amplitude). There was, however, a striking correlation of the shape of the action potential at the soma with its amplitude in the dendrite; larger, faster-rising, and narrower somatic action potentials exhibited more attenuation in the distal dendrites (300-410 μm from the soma). Simple compartmental models of CA1 pyramidal neurons revealed that a dichotomy in action- potential backpropagation could be generated in response to subtle manipulations of the distribution of either sodium or potassium channels in the dendrites. Backpropagation efficacy could also be influenced by local alterations in dendritic side branches, but these effects were highly sensitive to model parameters. Based on these findings, we hypothesize that the observed dichotomy in dendritic action-potential amplitude is conferred primarily by differences in the distribution, density, or modulatory state of voltage-gated channels along the somatodendritic axis.
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