The zona incerta (ZI) is at the crossroad of almost all major ascending and descending fiber tracts and targets numerous brain centers from the thalamus to the spinal cord. Effective ascending drive of ZI cells has been described, but the role of descending cortical signals in patterning ZI activity is unknown. Cortical control over ZI function was examined during slow cortical waves (1-3 Hz), paroxysmal high-voltage spindles (HVSs), and 5-9 Hz oscillations in anesthetized rats. In all conditions, rhythmic cortical activity significantly altered the firing pattern of ZI neurons recorded extracellularly and labeled with the juxtacellular method. During slow oscillations, the majority of ZI neurons became synchronized to the depth-negative phase ("up state") of the cortical waves to a degree comparable to thalamocortical neurons. During HVSs, ZI cells displayed highly rhythmic activity in tight synchrony with the cortical oscillations. ZI neurons responded to short epochs of cortical 5-9 Hz oscillations, with a change in the interspike interval distribution and with an increase in spectral density in the 5-9 Hz band as measured by wavelet analysis. Morphological reconstruction revealed that most ZI cells have mediolaterally extensive dendritic trees and very long dendritic segments. Cortical terminals established asymmetrical synapses on ZI cells with very long active zones. These data suggest efficient integration of widespread cortical signals by single ZI neurons and strong cortical drive. We propose that the efferent GABAergic signal of ZI neurons patterned by the cortical activity can play a critical role in synchronizing thalamocortical and brainstem rhythms.
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