We here reconsider current theories of neural ensembles in the context of recent discoveries about neuronal dendritic physiology. The key physiological observation is that the dendritic plateau potential produces sustained depolarization of the cell body (amplitude 10-20 mV, duration 200-500 ms). Our central hypothesis is that synaptically-evoked dendritic plateau potentials lead to a prepared state of a neuron that favors spike generation. The plateau both depolarizes the cell toward spike threshold, and provides faster response to inputs through a shortened membrane time constant. As a result, the speed of synaptic-to-action potential (AP) transfer is faster during the plateau phase. Our hypothesis relates the changes from "resting" to "depolarized" neuronal state to changes in ensemble dynamics and in network information flow. The plateau provides the Prepared state (sustained depolarization of the cell body) with a time window of 200-500 ms. During this time, a neuron can tune into ongoing network activity and synchronize spiking with other neurons to provide a coordinated Active state (robust firing of somatic APs), which would permit "binding" of signals through coordination of neural activity across a population. The transient Active ensemble of neurons is embedded in the longer-lasting Prepared ensemble of neurons. We hypothesize that "embedded ensemble encoding" may be an important organizing principle in networks of neurons.
Keywords: UP state; binding; dendritic; glutamate; plateau potential; rate code.
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