Objective: To review the stochastic resonance phenomena observed in sensory systems and to describe how a random process ('noise') added to a subthreshold stimulus can enhance sensory information processing and perception.
Results: Nonlinear systems need a threshold, subthreshold information bearing stimulus and 'noise' for stochastic resonance phenomena to occur. These three ingredients are ubiquitous in nature and man-made systems, which accounts for the observation of stochastic resonance in fields and conditions ranging from physics and engineering to biology and medicine. The stochastic resonance paradigm is compatible with single-neuron models or synaptic and channels properties and applies to neuronal assemblies activated by sensory inputs and perceptual processes as well. Here we review a few of the landmark experiments (including psychophysics, electrophysiology, fMRI, human vision, hearing and tactile functions, animal behavior, single/multiunit activity recordings). Models and experiments show a peculiar consistency with known neuronal and brain physiology. A number of naturally occurring 'noise' sources in the brain (e.g. synaptic transmission, channel gating, ion concentrations, membrane conductance) possibly accounting for stochastic resonance phenomena are also reviewed. Evidence is given suggesting a possible role of stochastic resonance in brain function, including detection of weak signals, synchronization and coherence among neuronal assemblies, phase resetting, 'carrier' signals, animal avoidance and feeding behaviors.
Conclusions: Stochastic resonance is a ubiquitous and conspicuous phenomenon compatible with neural models and theories of brain function. The available evidence suggests cautious interpretation, but justifies research and should encourage neuroscientists and clinical neurophysiologists to explore stochastic resonance in biology and medical science.