Microcircuitry of forward and feedback connections within rat visual cortex

Randall R. Johnson, Andreas Burkhalter

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102 Scopus citations


Visual cortex in mammals is composed of many distinct areas that are linked by reciprocal connections to form a multilevel hierarchy. Ascending information is sent via forward connections from lower to higher areas and is thought to contribute to the emergence of increasingly complex receptive field properties at higher levels. Descending signals are transmitted via feedback connections from higher to lower areas and are believed to provide information about the context in which a stimulus appears, to contribute to modulation of visual responses by attention, and to play a role in memory processes. To determine whether forward and feedback pathways in rat visual cortex constitute distinct intracortical circuits, we have studied the distribution of reciprocal corticocortical inputs to pyramidal cells and γ- aminobutyric acid (GABA)ergic interneurons. For this purpose, we chose forward and feedback connections between primary visual cortex and the secondary extrastriate lateromedial (LM) area as a model system. Pathways were traced with the axonal marker phaseolus vulgaris-leucoagglutinin. Labeled terminals were identified in the electron microscope, and GABA immunocytochemistry was used to identify the postsynaptic dendritic shafts of GABAergic interneurons. In both pathways, inputs to pyramidal cells were directed preferentially to dendritic spines and not to shafts. In the forward pathway, 90% of labeled inputs were distributed to pyramidal cells and 10% to interneurons. This proportion was similar to that of nearby unlabeled connections in the neuropil, indicating that forward connections are not selective for pyramidal cells or interneurons. In sharp contrast, feedback connections were significantly different from the unlabeled connections and supplied almost exclusively pyramidal cells (98%). Feedback inputs to GABAergic neurons were five times weaker (2%) relative to the forward direction. These structural differences suggest that disynaptic GABAergic inhibition is much stronger in forward than in feedback pathways. Recent physiological experiments have confirmed this prediction (Shao et al. [1995] Soc. Neurosci. Abstr., 21:1274) and we, therefore, conclude that relatively small anatomical differences in the microcircuitry can have important functional consequences. It remains an open question whether generally reciprocal interareal circuits at all levels of the cortical hierarchy are organized in similar fashion.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)383-398
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Comparative Neurology
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 6 1996


  • GABA inhibition
  • dendritic shaft
  • dendritic spine
  • synapse
  • visual system


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