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J Neurosci. 2012 Jan 18;32(3):1061-72. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2771-11.2012.

Maximal variability of phase synchrony in cortical networks with neuronal avalanches.

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Section on Critical Brain Dynamics, Laboratory of Systems Neuroscience, National Institutes of Mental Health, Bethesda, Maryland 20892, USA.


Ongoing interactions among cortical neurons often manifest as network-level synchrony. Understanding the spatiotemporal dynamics of such spontaneous synchrony is important because it may (1) influence network response to input, (2) shape activity-dependent microcircuit structure, and (3) reveal fundamental network properties, such as an imbalance of excitation (E) and inhibition (I). Here we delineate the spatiotemporal character of spontaneous synchrony in rat cortex slice cultures and a computational model over a range of different E-I conditions including disfacilitated (antagonized AMPA, NMDA receptors), unperturbed, and disinhibited (antagonized GABA(A) receptors). Local field potential was recorded with multielectrode arrays during spontaneous burst activity. Synchrony among neuronal groups was quantified based on phase-locking among recording sites. As network excitability was increased from low to high, we discovered three phenomena at an intermediate excitability level: (1) onset of synchrony, (2) maximized variability of synchrony, and (3) neuronal avalanches. Our computational model predicted that these three features occur when the network operates near a unique balanced E-I condition called "criticality." These results were invariant to changes in the measurement spatial extent, spatial resolution, and frequency bands. Our findings indicate that moderate average synchrony, which is required to avoid pathology, occurs over a limited range of E-I conditions and emerges together with maximally variable synchrony. If variable synchrony is detrimental to cortical function, this is a cost paid for moderate average synchrony. However, if variable synchrony is beneficial, then by operating near criticality the cortex may doubly benefit from moderate mean and maximized variability of synchrony.

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