During even the most quiescent behavioral periods, the cortex and thalamus express rich spontaneous activity in the form of slow (<1 Hz), synchronous network state transitions. Throughout this so-called slow oscillation, cortical and thalamic neurons fluctuate between periods of intense synaptic activity (Up states) and almost complete silence (Down states). The two decades since the original characterization of the slow oscillation in the cortex and thalamus have seen considerable advances in deciphering the cellular and network mechanisms associated with this pervasive phenomenon. There are, nevertheless, many questions regarding the slow oscillation that await more thorough illumination, particularly the mechanisms by which Up states initiate and terminate, the functional role of the rhythmic activity cycles in unconscious or minimally conscious states, and the precise relation between Up states and the activated states associated with waking behavior. Given the substantial advances in multineuronal recording and imaging methods in both in vivo and in vitro preparations, the time is ripe to take stock of our current understanding of the slow oscillation and pave the way for future investigations of its mechanisms and functions. My aim in this Review is to provide a comprehensive account of the mechanisms and functions of the slow oscillation, and to suggest avenues for further exploration.
Keywords: Up state; cortex; sleep; slow oscillation; thalamus.