Sleep spindles are major transient oscillations of the mammalian brain. Spindles are generated in the thalamus; however, what determines their duration is presently unclear. Here, we measured somatic activity of excitatory thalamocortical (TC) cells together with axonal activity of reciprocally coupled inhibitory reticular thalamic cells (nRTs) and quantified cycle-by-cycle alterations in their firing invivo. We found that spindles with different durations were paralleled by distinct nRT activity, and nRT firing sharply dropped before the termination of all spindles. Both initial nRT and TC activity was correlated with spindle length, but nRT correlation was more robust. Analysis of spindles evoked by optogenetic activation of nRT showed that spindle probability, but not spindle length, was determined by the strength of the light stimulus. Our data indicate that during natural sleep a dynamically fluctuating thalamocortical network controls the duration of sleep spindles via the major inhibitory element of the circuits, the nRT.
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