These cells are some of the largest neurons in the human brain, with an intricately elaborate dendritic arbor, characterized by a large number of dendritic spines. Purkinje cells are found within the Purkinje layer in the cerebellum. Purkinje cells are aligned like dominos stacked one in front of the other. Their large dendritic arbors form nearly two-dimensional layers through which parallel fibers from the deeper-layers pass. These parallel fibers make relatively weaker excitatory (glutamatergic) synapses to spines in the Purkinje cell dendrite, whereas climbing fibers originating from the inferior olivary nucleus in the medulla provide very powerful excitatory input to the proximal dendrites and cell soma. Parallel fibers pass orthogonally through the Purkinje neuron's dendritic arbor, with up to 200,000 parallel fibers forming a synapse with a single Purkinje cell. Each Purkinje cell receives a synapse from only a single climbing fiber. Both basket and stellate cells (found in the cerebellar molecular layer) provide inhibitory (GABAergic) input to the Purkinje cell, with basket cells synapsing on the Purkinje cell axon initial segment and stellate cells onto the dendrites.
Purkinje cells send inhibitory projections to the deep cerebellar nuclei, and constitute the sole output of all motor coordination in the cerebellar cortex.
Purkinje cells show two distinct forms of electrophysiological activity:
Purkinje cells show spontaneous electrophysiological activity in the form of trains of spikes both sodium- as well as calcium-dependent was initially shown by Rodolfo Llinas (Llinas and Hess (1977) and Llinas and Sugimori (1980. P-type calcium channels were named after Purkinje cells where they were initially encountered (Llinas et al 1989), which are crucial in cerebellar function. It has recently been shown that climbing fiber activation of the Purkinje cell can shift its activity from a quiet state to a spontaneously-active state, and vice-versa, serving as a type of toggle switch (Lowenstein et al., 2005, Nature Neuroscience). However, these findings have recently been challenged by a study suggesting that such toggling by climbing fiber inputs occurs predominantly in anaesthetized animals, and that Purkinje cells in awake behaving animals, in general, operate almost continuously in the upstate (Schonewille et al., 2006, Nature Neuroscience).
Findings have suggested that Purkinje cell dendrites release endocannabinoids that can transiently downregulate both excitatory and inhibitory synapses
In humans, Purkinje cells are affected in a variety of diseases ranging from toxic exposure (alcohol, lithium), to autoimmune diseases and to genetic mutations (spinocerebellar ataxias, autism) and neurodegenerative diseases that are not thought to have a known genetic basis (cerebellar type of multiple system atrophy, sporadic ataxias).
In some domestic animals, a condition where the Purkinje cells begin to atrophy shortly after birth, called Cerebellar abiotrophy, can lead to symptoms including ataxia, intention tremors, hyperreactivity, lack of menace reflex, stiff or high-stepping gait, apparent lack of awareness of wherein the feet are (sometimes standing or walking with a foot knuckled over), and a general inability to determine space and distance. A similar condition known as cerebellar hypoplasia occurs when Purkinje cells either fail to develop in utero or die off in utero prior to birth. Ataxia Telangiectasia is a genetic condition, in which Purkinje cells are progressively lost.