The neuronal underpinnings of impaired consciousness during absence seizures remain largely unknown. Spike‐and‐wave (SW) activity associated with absences imposes two extremely different states in cortical neurons, which transition from suprathreshold synaptic depolarizations during spike phases to membrane hyperpolarization and electrical silence during wave phases. To investigate whether this rhythmic alternation of neuronal states affects the processing of sensory information during seizures, we examined cortical and thalamic responsiveness to brief sensory stimuli in the different phases of the epileptic cycle.
Electrocorticographic (ECoG) monitoring from the primary somatosensory cortex combined with intracellular recordings of subjacent pyramidal neurons, or extracellular recordings of somatosensory thalamic neurons, were performed in the Genetic Absence Epilepsy Rat From Strasbourg. Sensory stimuli consisted of pulses of compressed air applied to the contralateral whiskers.
Whisker stimuli delivered during spike phases evoked smaller depolarizing synaptic potentials and fewer action potentials in cortical neurons compared to stimuli occurring during wave phases. This spike‐related attenuation of cortical responsiveness was accompanied by a reduced neuronal membrane resistance, likely due to the large increase in synaptic conductance. Sensory‐evoked firing in thalamocortical neurons was also decreased during ECoG spikes as compared to wave phases, indicating that time‐to‐time changes in the thalamocortical volley may also contribute to the variability of cortical responses during seizures.
These findings demonstrate that thalamocortical sensory processing during absence seizures is nonstationary and strongly suggest that the cortical impact of a given environmental stimulus is conditioned by its exact timing relative to the SW cycle. The lack of stability of thalamic and cortical responses along seizures may contribute to impaired conscious sensory perception during absences.