The synaptic connections of a specific type of identified cortical interneuron, the axo-axonic cell, were studied using Golgi methods. In the light-microscope axo-axonic cells were demonstrated in certain layers of the primary and secondary visual cortex of rat, cat and monkey, in the motor cortex of cat and in the subiculum and pyriform cortex of rat. The dendrites originating from the oval soma were oriented radially in a lower and upper spray within a cylinder about 100-150 μm wide. Electronmicroscopy of Golgi impregnated, gold-toned axo-axonic cells showed predominantly but not exclusively asymmetrical synaptic contacts on their dendrites and spines, few synaptic contacts on the perikarya some of which were asymmetrical, and no synaptic contacts on the axon initial segment. The axon usually arborized within the vicinity of the cell's own dendritic field in an area 100-200 μm in diameter. In the kitten motor cortex the axon of a neuron in layer III descended to layer VI, providing a columnar arborization. The axon formed specialized, 10-50 μm long terminal segments invariably oriented parallel with the axon initial segment of pyramidal cells. All 85 identified symmetrical-type synaptic contacts, deriving from 31 specialized terminal segments, were found exclusively on the axon initial segment of pyramidal neurons. Rare, lone boutons of axo-axonic cells also made synaptic contact only with axon initial segments, confirming the exclusive target specificity of these cells. In identified gold-toned boutons, flattened pleomorphic vesicles were present. Electron-microscopy showed that axons ending in specialized terminal segments may originate from myelinated fibres, indicating that Golgi impregnation has revealed only part of the axon. Counting of axon terminal segments, each of which was in contact with the axon initial segment of a pyramidal neuron, revealed 166 pyramidal neurons receiving input from a partially reconstructed axo-axonic cell in the motor cortex of the kitten, and 67 from another cell in the visual cortex of the cat. The convergence of five axo-axonic cells onto one pyramidal cell was demonstrated in the striate cortex of the cat by counting all synaptic contacts on three initial segments. Cells from a one-month-old kitten were compared with those of the adult. The axon of the developing neurons was more diverse, having many growth cones and filopodia which made no specialized membrane contacts. However, the developing specific terminal segments formed synapses only with axon initial segments. It is concluded that the presence of axo-axonic cells in all the species and cortical areas we have examined suggests their association with the structural design of pyramidal cells, wherever the latter occur, and with their participation in the information processing of pyramidal cells. Axo-axonic cells are uniquely endowed with the means of simultaneously influencing the action potential at the site of origin in groups of pyramidal cells. This strategic location may enable them to synchronise the activity of pyramidal neurons, either through inhibitory gating or through changing the threshold of pyramidal cells to certain inputs.
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