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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011 Sep 13;108 Suppl 3:15542-8. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1010674108. Epub 2011 Mar 7.

Variability, compensation, and modulation in neurons and circuits.

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Department of Biology and Volen Center, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA 02454, USA.


I summarize recent computational and experimental work that addresses the inherent variability in the synaptic and intrinsic conductances in normal healthy brains and shows that multiple solutions (sets of parameters) can produce similar circuit performance. I then discuss a number of issues raised by this observation, such as which parameter variations arise from compensatory mechanisms and which reflect insensitivity to those particular parameters. I ask whether networks with different sets of underlying parameters can nonetheless respond reliably to neuromodulation and other global perturbations. At the computational level, I describe a paradigm shift in which it is becoming increasingly common to develop families of models that reflect the variance in the biological data that the models are intended to illuminate rather than single, highly tuned models. On the experimental side, I discuss the inherent limitations of overreliance on mean data and suggest that it is important to look for compensations and correlations among as many system parameters as possible, and between each system parameter and circuit performance. This second paradigm shift will require moving away from measurements of each system component in isolation but should reveal important previously undescribed principles in the organization of complex systems such as brains.

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