Synapses play a crucial role in information processing in the brain. Amplitude fluctuations of synaptic responses can be used to extract information about the mechanisms underlying synaptic transmission and its modulation. In particular, multiple-probability fluctuation analysis can be used to estimate the number of functional release sites, the mean probability of release and the amplitude of the mean quantal response from fits of the relationship between the variance and mean amplitude of postsynaptic responses, recorded at different probabilities. To determine these quantal parameters, calculate their uncertainties and the goodness-of-fit of the model, it is important to weight the contribution of each data point in the fitting procedure. We therefore investigated the errors associated with measuring the variance by determining the best estimators of the variance of the variance and have used simulations of synaptic transmission to test their accuracy and reliability under different experimental conditions. For central synapses, which generally have a low number of release sites, the amplitude distribution of synaptic responses is not normal, thus the use of a theoretical variance of the variance based on the normal assumption is not a good approximation. However, appropriate estimators can be derived for the population and for limited sample sizes using a more general expression that involves higher moments and introducing unbiased estimators based on the h-statistics. Our results are likely to be relevant for various applications of fluctuation analysis when few channels or release sites are present. © 2005 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
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