Synapses in the central nervous system are typically studied by recording electrical responses from the cell body of the post-synaptic cell. Because neurons are normally connected by multiple synaptic contacts, these postsynaptic responses reflect the combined activity of many thousands synapses and it remains unclear to what extent the properties of individual synapses can be deduced from the population response. We have therefore developed a method for recording the activity of individual hippocampal synapses. By capturing an isolated presynaptic bouton inside a loose-patch pipette and recording from the associated patch of postsynaptic membrane, we were able to detect miniature excitatory postsynaptic currents ('minis') arising from spontaneous vesicle exocytosis at a single synaptic site, and to compare these with minis recorded simultaneously from the cell body. The average peak conductance at a single synapse was about 900 pS, corresponding roughly to the opening of 90 AMPA-type glutamate-receptor channels. The variability in this conductance was about 30%, matching the value reported for the neuromuscular junction. Given that our synapses displayed single postsynaptic densities (PSDs), this variability is larger than would be predicted from the random opening of receptor channels, suggesting that they are not saturated by the content of a single vesicle. Therefore the response to a quantum of neurotransmitter at these synapses is not limited by the number of available postsynaptic receptors.
ASJC Scopus subject areas