Journal of Neurophysiology

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Octopus Cells of the Mammalian Ventral Cochlear Nucleus Sense the Rate of Depolarization

Michael J. Ferragamo, Donata Oertel


Whole cell patch recordings in slices show that the probability of firing of action potentials in octopus cells of the ventral cochlear nucleus depends on the dynamic properties of depolarization. Octopus cells fired only when the rate of rise of a depolarization exceeded a threshold value that varied between 5 and 15 mV/ms among cells. The threshold rate of rise was independent of whether depolarizations were evoked synaptically or by the intracellular injection of current. Previous work showed that octopus cells are contacted by many auditory nerve fibers, each providing less than 1-mV depolarization. Summation of synaptic input from multiple fibers is required for an octopus cell to reach threshold. In firing only when synaptic depolarization exceeds a threshold rate, octopus cells fire selectively when synaptic input is sufficiently large and synchronized for the small, brief unitary excitatory postsynaptic potentials (EPSPs) to sum to produce a rapidly rising depolarization. The sensitivity to rate of depolarization is governed by a low-threshold, α-dendrotoxin-sensitive potassium conductance (g KL). This conductance also shapes the peaks of action potentials, contributing to the precision in their timing. Firing in neighboring T stellate cells depends much less strongly on the rate of rise. They lack strong α-dendrotoxin-sensitive conductances. Octopus cells appear to be specialized to detect synchronization in the activation of groups of auditory nerve fibers, a common pattern in responses to natural sounds, and convey its occurrence with temporal precision.


  • Address for reprint requests: D. Oertel, Dept. of Physiology, University of Wisconsin Medical School, 1300 University Ave., Madison, WI 53706 (E-mail: oertel{at}

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