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Exp Brain Res. 2007 Oct;182(4):491-8. Epub 2007 Aug 3.

Differential dynamics of transient neuronal assemblies in visual compared to auditory cortex.

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Department of Pharmacology, University of Oxford, Mansfield Road, Oxford OX1 3QT, UK.


Large-scale, coherent, but highly transient networks of neurons, 'neuronal assemblies', operate over a sub-second time frame. Such assemblies of brain cells need not necessarily respect well-defined anatomical compartmentalisation, but represent an intermediate level of brain organisation between identified brain regions and individual neurons dependent on the activity status of the synaptic connections and axonal projections. To study neuronal assemblies both in slices and in the living brain, optical imaging using voltage-sensitive dyes (VSDI) offers the highest spatial and temporal resolution in real-time. Applying VSDI technique to compare assemblies in visual versus auditory cortices under standardised experimental protocols, we observed no significant variations in the basic parameters of fluorescence signal and assembly size: such results might be predicted from the canonical invariance of cortical structures across modalities. However, further analysis revealed less obvious yet significant differences in the assembly dynamics of the two regions. The neural assemblies spread widely across layers in the two cortices following paired-pulse stimulation of putative layer 4. The respective patterns of activity started to differentiate within a specific time frame (250-300 ms). The signal was predominant near the point of stimulation in the visual cortex, whereas in the auditory cortex the signal was stronger in the superficial layers. This modality-specific divergence in assembly dynamics highlights a previously under-appreciated level of neuronal processing. Additionally, these findings could prompt a new approach to the understanding of how information from different senses, transmitted as action potentials with identical electrochemical characteristics across different cortices, be it visual or auditory, can eventually yield, nonetheless, the qualitatively distinct experiences of seeing or hearing.

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