For sensory cortices to respond reliably to feature stimuli, the balancing of neuronal excitation and inhibition is crucial. A typical example might be the balancing of phasic excitation within cell assemblies and phasic inhibition between cell assemblies. The former controls the gain of and the latter the tuning of neuronal responses. A change in ambient GABA concentration might affect the dynamic behavior of neurons in a tonic manner. For instance, an increase in ambient GABA concentration enhances the activation of extrasynaptic receptors, augments an inhibitory current, and thus inhibits neurons. When a decrease in ambient GABA concentration occurs, the tonic inhibitory current is reduced, and thus the neurons are relatively excited. We simulated a neural network model in order to examine whether and how such a tonic excitatory-inhibitory mechanism could work for sensory information processing. The network consists of cell assemblies. Each cell assembly, comprising principal cells (P), GABAergic interneurons (Ia, Ib), and glial cells (glia), responds to one particular feature stimulus. GABA transporters, embedded in glial plasma membranes, regulate ambient GABA levels. Hypothetical neuron-glia signaling via inhibitory (Ia-to-glia) and excitatory (P-to-glia) synaptic contacts was assumed. The former let transporters import (remove) GABA from the extracellular space and excited stimulus-relevant P cells. The latter let them export GABA into the extracellular space and inhibited stimulus-irrelevant P cells. The main finding was that the glial membrane transporter gave a combinatorial excitatory-inhibitory effect on P cells in a tonic manner, thereby improving the gain and tuning of neuronal responses. Interestingly, it worked cooperatively with the conventional, phasic excitatory-inhibitory mechanism. We suggest that the GABAergic gliotransmission mechanism may provide balanced intracortical excitation and inhibition so that the best perceptual performance of the cortex can be achieved.

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