Normal operations of the neocortex depend critically on several types of inhibitory interneurons, but the specific function of each type is unknown. One possibility is that interneurons are differentially engaged by patterns of activity that vary in frequency and timing. To explore this, we studied the strength and short-term dynamics of chemical synapses interconnecting local excitatory neurons (regular-spiking, or RS, cells) with two types of inhibitory interneurons: fast-spiking (FS) cells, and low-threshold spiking (LTS) cells of layer 4 in the rat barrel cortex. We also tested two other pathways onto the interneurons: thalamocortical connections and recurrent collaterals from corticothalamic projection neurons of layer 6. The excitatory and inhibitory synapses interconnecting RS cells and FS cells were highly reliable in response to single stimuli and displayed strong short-term depression. In contrast, excitatory and inhibitory synapses interconnecting the RS and LTS cells were less reliable when initially activated. Excitatory synapses from RS cells onto LTS cells showed dramatic short-term facilitation, whereas inhibitory synapses made by LTS cells onto RS cells facilitated modestly or slightly depressed. Thalamocortical inputs strongly excited both RS and FS cells but rarely and only weakly contacted LTS cells. Both types of interneurons were strongly excited by facilitating synapses from axon collaterals of corticothalamic neurons. We conclude that there are two parallel but dynamically distinct systems of synaptic inhibition in layer 4 of neocortex, each defined by its intrinsic spiking properties, the short-term plasticity of its chemical synapses, and (as shown previously) an exclusive set of electrical synapses. Because of their unique dynamic properties, each inhibitory network will be recruited by different temporal patterns of cortical activity.
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