Apical dendrites constitute a prominent feature of the microcircuitry in the neocortex, yet their function is poorly understood. Using fura-2 imaging of layer 5 pyramidal neurons from slices of rat somatosensory cortex, we have investigated the Ca2+ influx into dendrites under intracellular, antidromic, synaptic, and receptor-agonist stimulation. We find three spatial patterns of Ca2+ accumulations: an apical band in the apical dendrite approximately 500 μm from the soma, an accumulation restricted to the basal dendrites, soma, and proximal apical dendrite, and a combination of both of these. We show that the apical band can be activated antidromically and synaptically and that, under blocked Na+ and K+ conductances, it generates Ca2+ spikes. Thus, the apical band may serve as a dendritic trigger zone for regenerative Ca2+ spikes or as a current amplifier for distal synaptic events. Our results suggest that the distal apical dendrite should be considered a separate functional compartment from the rest of the cell.
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