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Mixed synapses discovered and mapped throughout mammalian spinal cord.

  • J E Rash
  • R K Dillman
  • B L Bilhartz
  • H S Duffy
  • L R Whalen
  • T Yasumura
Publication Date
Apr 30, 1996
  • Chemistry
  • Communication
  • Design
  • Mathematics


Previously, synaptic activity in the spinal cord of adult mammals was attributed exclusively to chemical neurotransmission. In this study, evidence was obtained for the existence, relative abundance, and widespread distribution of "mixed" (chemical and electrical) synapses on neurons throughout the spinal cords of adult mammals. Using combined confocal microscopy and "grid-mapped freeze fracture," 36 mixed synapses containing 88 "micro" gap junctions (median = 45 connexons) were found and mapped to 33 interneurons and motor neurons in Rexed laminae III-IX in cervical, thoracic, and lumbosacral spinal cords of adult male and female rats. Gap junctions were adjacent to presumptive active zones, where even small gap junctions would be expected to increase synaptic efficacy. Two morphological types of mixed synapse were discerned. One type contained distinctive active zones consisting of "nested" concentric toroidal deformations of pre- and postsynaptic membranes, which, because of their unusual topology, were designated as "synaptic sombreros." A second type had gap junctions adjacent to active zones consisting of broad, flat, shallow indentations of the plasma membrane. Morphometric analysis indicates that mixed synapses correspond to 3-5% of all synapses on the somata and proximal dendrites, but, because of their subcellular location and morphology, they could represent 30-100% of excitatory synapses. The relative abundance of mixed synapses on several classes of neurons in spinal cords of adult rats suggests that mixed synapses provide important but previously unrecognized pathways for bidirectional communication between neurons in the mammalian central nervous system.

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