The voltage clamp technique is frequently used to examine the strength and composition of synaptic input to neurons. Even accounting for imperfect voltage control of the entire cell membrane (“space clamp”), it is often assumed that currents measured at the soma are a proportional indicator of the postsynaptic conductance. Here, using NEURON simulation software to model somatic recordings from morphologically realistic neurons, we show that excitatory conductances recorded in voltage clamp mode are distorted significantly by neighboring inhibitory conductances, even when the postsynaptic membrane potential starts at the reversal potential of the inhibitory conductance. Analogous effects are observed when inhibitory postsynaptic currents are recorded at the reversal potential of the excitatory conductance. Escape potentials in poorly clamped dendrites reduce the amplitude of excitatory or inhibitory postsynaptic currents recorded at the reversal potential of the other conductance. In addition, unclamped postsynaptic inhibitory conductances linearize the recorded current-voltage relationship of excitatory inputs comprising AMPAR and NMDAR-mediated components, leading to significant underestimation of the relative contribution by NMDARs, which are particularly sensitive to small perturbations in membrane potential. Voltage clamp accuracy varies substantially between neurons and dendritic arbors of different morphology; as expected, more reliable recordings are obtained from dendrites near the soma, but up to 80% of the synaptic signal on thin, distant dendrites may be lost when postsynaptic interactions are present. These limitations of the voltage clamp technique may explain how postsynaptic effects on synaptic transmission could, in some cases, be attributed incorrectly to presynaptic mechanisms
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