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Neuroscientist. 2008 Oct;14(5):487-502. doi: 10.1177/1073858408317066.

Propagating waves of activity in the neocortex: what they are, what they do.

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Department of Physiology and Biophysics, Georgetown University Medical Center, Washington, DC, USA.


The development of voltage-sensitive dyes (VSD) and fast optical imaging techniques have brought us a new tool for examining spatiotemporal patterns of population neuronal activity in the neocortex. Propagating waves have been observed during almost every type of cortical processing examined by VSD imaging or electrode arrays. These waves provide subthreshold depolarization to individual neurons and increase their spiking probability. Therefore, the propagation of the waves sets up a spatiotemporal framework for increased excitability in neuronal populations, which can help to determine when and where the neurons are likely to fire. In this review, first discussed is propagating waves observed in various systems and possible mechanisms for generating and sustaining these waves. Then discussed are wave dynamics as an emergent behavior of the population activity that can, in turn, influence the activity of individual neurons. The functions of spontaneous and sensory-evoked waves remain to be explored. An important next step will be to examine the interaction between dynamics of propagating waves and functions in the cortex, and to verify if cortical processing can be modified when these waves are altered.

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