There is no direct information available concerning the exact spatial characteristics of long-range axons and their relationship with the patchy phenomena observed after extracellular injection of retrograde tracers. In the present study, using the recently introduced neuronal tracer biocytin, we demonstrate by detailed three-dimensional reconstruction of 10 pyramidal cells in layer III, that their clustered axonal terminals form a specific patchy network in layers II and III. The reconstructed network occupied an area of 6.5 × 3.5 mm parallel to the cortical surface elongated in an anteroposterior direction. The average centre-to-centre distance between patches within the network was 1.1 mm. On average, the axonal field of each of the 10 pyramidal cells contained a total of 417 boutons at four to eight distinct sites (patches), and in each patch, an average of 79 boutons was provided by the same cell. The identified connections between the patches were predominantly reciprocal. Detailed analyses have shown that many pyramidal cells of the network are directly interconnected so that each of them can receive one to four, chiefly axospinous, contacts onto the distal segment of its apical and basal dendrites from the axon of another pyramidal cell belonging to a different patch labelled from the same injection site. We hypothesize that the possible functional role of the network is to link remote sites with similar physiological characteristics, such as orientation preference, supporting the model of Mitchison and Crick [(1982) Proc. natn. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 79, 3661-3665].
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