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GABA through the Ages: Regulation of Cortical Function and Plasticity by Inhibitory Interneurons

DOI: 10.1155/2012/892784

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Inhibitory interneurons comprise only about 20% of cortical neurons and thus constitute a clear minority compared to the vast number of excitatory projection neurons. They are, however, an influential minority with important roles in cortical maturation, function, and plasticity. In this paper, we will highlight the functional importance of cortical inhibition throughout brain development, starting with the embryonal formation of the cortex, proceeding by the regulation of sensory cortical plasticity in adulthood, and finishing with the GABA involvement in sensory information processing in old age. 1. Introduction The functioning of the cerebral cortex depends critically on the precise balance between excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitter systems. Excitation is mediated via glutamate by pyramidal neurons, the projection neurons of the cortex, and by a special class of local neurons in cortical layer IV, the spiny stellate cells. Inhibition is mediated via γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA) by cortical interneurons, which regulate the degree of glutamatergic excitation, filtering the input and regulate the output of projection neurons. GABAergic interneurons, the “nonpyramidal cells” of the cerebral cortex, take many different forms of dendritic and axonal arborization, which have been used for their morphological classification ever since their first description by Ramon Cajal [1–5]. Moreover, interneurons also differ in their firing patterns, the neuropeptides they express, their calcium-binding protein content, and other molecular markers such as ion channels, receptors, and transporters. Based on the combination of structural, functional, and biochemical criteria, interneurons have been subdivided into many different subclasses and it is still a matter of hot debate among the experts of how many interneuron subtypes exist in the cortices of different species [6–8]. At the circuit level, interneurons control the flow of information and synchronization in the cerebral cortex. There are about five times more glutamatergic neurons than GABAergic neurons in the neocortex; this ratio is consistently observed across many mammalian species. This then suggests that the numerical balance of excitatory and inhibitory neurons may be important for normal brain function and behavior. Even though GABAergic interneurons comprise only a small fraction of the cells in the neocortex, disturbances in their development, and hence the delicate balance between excitation and inhibition, can lead to neurological or neuropsychiatric diseases such as epilepsy, autism, and

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