Thalamocortical synapses in the cat visual system in vivo are weak and unreliable

  1. Madineh Sedigh-Sarvestani  Is a corresponding author
  2. Larry A Palmer
  3. Diego Contreras  Is a corresponding author
  1. University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, United States


The thalamocortical synapse of the visual system has been central to our understanding of sensory computations in the cortex. Although we have a fair understanding of the functional properties of the pre and post-synaptic populations, little is known about their synaptic properties, particularly in vivo. We used simultaneous recordings in LGN and V1 in cat in vivo to characterize the dynamic properties of thalamocortical synaptic transmission in monosynaptically connected LGN-V1 neurons. We found that thalamocortical synapses in vivo are unreliable, highly variable and exhibit short-term plasticity. Using biologically constrained models, we found that variable and unreliable synapses serve to increase cortical firing by means of increasing membrane fluctuations, similar to high conductance states. Thus, synaptic variability and unreliability, rather than acting as system noise, do serve a computational function. Our characterization of LGN-V1 synaptic properties constrains existing mathematical models, and mechanistic hypotheses, of a fundamental circuit in computational neuroscience.

Data availability

All data generated or analysed during this study are included in the manuscript and supporting files. Raw data and MATLAB code have been uploaded to Dryad (

The following data sets were generated

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Author details

  1. Madineh Sedigh-Sarvestani

    Department of Neuroscience, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Philadelphia, United States
    For correspondence
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.
  2. Larry A Palmer

    Department of Neuroscience, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Philadelphia, United States
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.
  3. Diego Contreras

    Department of Neuroscience, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Philadelphia, United States
    For correspondence
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.
    ORCID icon "This ORCID iD identifies the author of this article:" 0000-0003-0197-9882


National Eye Institute (R01EY027205)

  • Larry A Palmer
  • Diego Contreras

The funders had no role in study design, data collection and interpretation, or the decision to submit the work for publication.

Reviewing Editor

  1. John Huguenard, Stanford University School of Medicine, United States


Animal experimentation: This study was performed in strict accordance with the recommendations in the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals of the National Institutes of Health. All of the animals were handled according to approved institutional animal care and use committee (IACUC) of the University of Pennsylvania (Protocol # 803477). All surgery was performed under sodium pentobarbital or propofol anesthesia, and every effort was made to minimize suffering.

Version history

  1. Received: September 11, 2018
  2. Accepted: April 27, 2019
  3. Accepted Manuscript published: April 29, 2019 (version 1)
  4. Version of Record published: May 8, 2019 (version 2)


© 2019, Sedigh-Sarvestani et al.

This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License permitting unrestricted use and redistribution provided that the original author and source are credited.


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  1. Madineh Sedigh-Sarvestani
  2. Larry A Palmer
  3. Diego Contreras
Thalamocortical synapses in the cat visual system in vivo are weak and unreliable
eLife 8:e41925.

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