The electrophysiological and pharmacological properties of dopaminergic neurons were systematically examined throughout the anterior-posterior extent of the substantia nigra zona compacta in the rat. Cells were characterized in terms of their (1) firing pattern, (2) firing rate, (3) antidromic response properties, and (4) inhibition in firing rate following dopaminergic agonist administration. These properties were then related to the cell's position within one of four anterior-posterior segments of the nucleus. There were three types of neuronal discharge pattern encountered; irregular, burst and regular. Cells which exhibited different firing patterns exhibited different firing rates and anatomical locations within the substantia nigra zona compacta. All neurons were antidromically activated from the striatum, however, the burst- and regular-firing cells exhibited significantly faster estimated conduction velocities than irregular-firing cells. The irregular-firing cells were most sensitive to dopaminergic autoreceptor agonists whereas the burst-firing cells were most sensitive to an indirect-acting dopaminergic agonist. These experiments provide both electrophysiological and pharmacological evidence to indicate that nigrostriatal dopaminergic neurons are composed of distinct subpopulations which are characterized by their firing pattern.
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