Mechanisms of Persistent Activity in Cortical Circuits: Possible Neural Substrates for Working Memory

Annu Rev Neurosci. 2017 Jul 25;40:603-627. doi: 10.1146/annurev-neuro-070815-014006.


A commonly observed neural correlate of working memory is firing that persists after the triggering stimulus disappears. Substantial effort has been devoted to understanding the many potential mechanisms that may underlie memory-associated persistent activity. These rely either on the intrinsic properties of individual neurons or on the connectivity within neural circuits to maintain the persistent activity. Nevertheless, it remains unclear which mechanisms are at play in the many brain areas involved in working memory. Herein, we first summarize the palette of different mechanisms that can generate persistent activity. We then discuss recent work that asks which mechanisms underlie persistent activity in different brain areas. Finally, we discuss future studies that might tackle this question further. Our goal is to bridge between the communities of researchers who study either single-neuron biophysical, or neural circuit, mechanisms that can generate the persistent activity that underlies working memory.

Keywords: attractor network; bistability; feedback; neocortex; persistent activity; plateau potential; short-term memory; synaptic transmission.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Action Potentials / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology*
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*
  • Models, Neurological*
  • Nerve Net / physiology*
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Synaptic Transmission / physiology