In mammals, the pontine nucleus locus ceruleus (LC) is the sole source of norepinephrine (NE) projections to the forebrain. Increasing tonic discharge of LC neurons elevates extracellular levels of NE in the cortex and thalamus. Tonic LC discharge is linked to the level of wakefulness and behavioral performance, demonstrating an optimal firing rate during sustained attention tasks. Iontophoretic application of NE to target neurons in the forebrain has been shown to produce a diverse set of neuromodulatory actions, including augmentation of synaptically evoked discharge as well as suppression of spontaneous and stimulus-evoked firing patterns. Iontophoretic studies cataloged potential NE effects; however, the context in which such actions could occur in awake behaving animals remained controversial. To address this issue, the current study examined the effects of increasing tonic LC output on spontaneous and stimulus-evoked discharge of neurons within the ventroposterior medial (VPM) thalamus and barrel field (BF) somatosensory cortex of awake animals using multichannel extracellular recording strategies. The present findings indicate two primary outcomes that result from increasing frequencies of LC stimulation, either an inverted-U facilitating response profile or monotonic suppression of sensory-evoked neuronal responses. Increased tonic LC output generally decreased neuronal response latency measures for both BF cortical and VPM thalamic cells. LC-mediated effects on target VPM and BF cortical neuron sensory processing are consistent with previous demonstrations of NE modulatory actions on central neurons but indicate that such actions are cell specific. Moreover, clear differences were observed between the modulation of VPM and BF cortical cells. These data suggest that sensory signal processing is continually altered over the range of tonic LC discharge frequencies that occur in the waking animal. Such changes may account for LC-mediated shifts in sensory network performance across multiple stages of arousal and attention.
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