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Selective modulation of chemical and electrical synapses of Helix neuronal networks during in vitro development

Paolo Massobrio1*, Carlo NG Giachello2, Mirella Ghirardi23 and Sergio Martinoia1

Author affiliations

1 Neuroengineering and Bio-nano Technology Group (NBT), Department of Informatics, Bioengineering, Robotics, System Engineering (DIBRIS), University of Genova, Genova, Italy

2 Department of Neuroscience, University of Torino, Torino, Italy

3 Istituto Nazionale di Neuroscienze, Torino, Italy

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Citation and License

BMC Neuroscience 2013, 14:22  doi:10.1186/1471-2202-14-22

Published: 25 February 2013



A large number of invertebrate models, including the snail Helix, emerged as particularly suitable tools for investigating the formation of synapses and the specificity of neuronal connectivity. Helix neurons can be individually identified and isolated in cell culture, showing well-conserved size, position, biophysical properties, synaptic connections, and physiological functions. Although we previously showed the potential usefulness of Helix polysynaptic circuits, a full characterization of synaptic connectivity and its dynamics during network development has not been performed.


In this paper, we systematically investigated the in vitro formation of polysynaptic circuits, among Helix B2 and the serotonergic C1 neurons, from a morphological and functional point of view. Since these cells are generally silent in culture, networks were chemically stimulated with either high extracellular potassium concentrations or, alternatively, serotonin. Potassium induced a transient depolarization of all neurons. On the other hand, we found prolonged firing activity, selectively maintained following the first serotonin application. Statistical analysis revealed no significant changes in neuronal dynamics during network development. Moreover, we demonstrated that the cell-selective effect of serotonin was also responsible for short-lasting alterations in C1 excitability, without long-term rebounds.

Estimation of the functional connections by means of cross-correlation analysis revealed that networks under elevated KCl concentrations exhibited strongly correlated signals with short latencies (about 5 ms), typical of electrically coupled cells. Conversely, neurons treated with serotonin were weakly connected with longer latencies (exceeding 20 ms) between the interacting neurons. Finally, we clearly demonstrated that these two types of correlations (in terms of strength/latency) were effectively related to the presence of electrical or chemical connections, by comparing Micro-Electrode Array (MEA) signal traces with intracellularly recorded cell pairs.


Networks treated with either potassium or serotonin were predominantly interconnected through electrical or chemical connections, respectively. Furthermore, B2 response and short-term increase in C1 excitability induced by serotonin is sufficient to trigger spontaneous activity with chemical connections, an important requisite for long-term maintenance of firing activity.

Helix neurons; Micro-Electrode Arrays; Functional connectivity; Network development; Dynamics