Amplification of trial-to-trial response variability by neurons in visual cortex

PLoS Biol. 2004 Sep;2(9):E264. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0020264. Epub 2004 Aug 24.


The visual cortex responds to repeated presentations of the same stimulus with high variability. Because the firing mechanism is remarkably noiseless, the source of this variability is thought to lie in the membrane potential fluctuations that result from summated synaptic input. Here this hypothesis is tested through measurements of membrane potential during visual stimulation. Surprisingly, trial-to-trial variability of membrane potential is found to be low. The ratio of variance to mean is much lower for membrane potential than for firing rate. The high variability of firing rate is explained by the threshold present in the function that converts inputs into firing rates. Given an input with small, constant noise, this function produces a firing rate with a large variance that grows with the mean. This model is validated on responses recorded both intracellularly and extracellularly. In neurons of visual cortex, thus, a simple deterministic mechanism amplifies the low variability of summated synaptic inputs into the large variability of firing rate. The computational advantages provided by this amplification are not known.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Action Potentials
  • Animals
  • Brain / pathology*
  • Cats
  • Cell Membrane / metabolism
  • Cerebral Cortex
  • Electrophysiology
  • Evoked Potentials, Visual
  • Guinea Pigs
  • Kinetics
  • Membrane Potentials
  • Models, Neurological
  • Models, Statistical
  • Neurons / metabolism
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Normal Distribution
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Synapses
  • Synaptic Transmission
  • Visual Cortex / physiology*
  • Visual Pathways*