Cellular mechanisms contributing to response variability of cortical neurons in vivo

Rony Azouz, Charles M. Gray

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335 Scopus citations


Cortical neurons recorded in vivo exhibit highly variable responses to the repeated presentation of the same stimulus. To further understand the cellular mechanisms underlying this phenomenon, we performed intracellular recordings from neurons in cat striate cortex in vivo and examined the relationships between spontaneous activity and visually evoked responses. Activity was assessed on a trial-by-trial basis by measuring the membrane potential (V(m)) fluctuations and spike activity during brief epochs immediately before and after the onset of an evoked response. We found that the response magnitude, expressed as a change in V(m) relative to baseline, was linearly correlated with the preceding spontaneous V(m). This correlation was enhanced when the cells were hyperpolarized to reduce the activation of voltage-gated conductances. The output of the cells, expressed as spike counts and latencies, was only moderately correlated with fluctuations in the preceding spontaneous V(m). Spike-triggered averaging of V(m) revealed that visually evoked action potentials arise from transient depolarizations having a rise time of ~10 msec. Consistent with this, evoked spike count was found to be linearly correlated with the magnitude of V(m) fluctuations in the γ (20-70 Hz) frequency band. We also found that the threshold of visually evoked action potentials varied over a range of ~10 mV. Examination of simultaneously recorded intracellular and extracellular activity revealed a correlation between V(m) depolarization and spike discharges in adjacent cells. Together these results demonstrate that response variability is attributable largely to coherent fluctuations in cortical activity preceding the onset of a stimulus, but also to variations in action potential threshold and the magnitude of high-frequency fluctuations evoked by the stimulus.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2209-2223
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number6
StatePublished - 15 Mar 1999
Externally publishedYes


  • Area 17
  • Cat
  • Cortical dynamics
  • Physiology
  • V1
  • Visual cortex


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