Conditional Bistability, a Generic Cellular Mnemonic Mechanism for Robust and Flexible Working Memory Computations

J Neurosci. 2018 May 30;38(22):5209-5219. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1992-17.2017. Epub 2018 Apr 30.


Persistent neural activity, the substrate of working memory, is thought to emerge from synaptic reverberation within recurrent networks. However, reverberation models do not robustly explain the fundamental dynamics of persistent activity, including high-spiking irregularity, large intertrial variability, and state transitions. While cellular bistability may contribute to persistent activity, its rigidity appears incompatible with persistent activity labile characteristics. Here, we unravel in a cellular model a form of spike-mediated conditional bistability that is robust and generic. and provides a rich repertoire of mnemonic computations. Under asynchronous synaptic inputs of the awakened state, conditional bistability generates spiking/bursting episodes, accounting for the irregularity, variability, and state transitions characterizing persistent activity. This mechanism has likely been overlooked because of the subthreshold input it requires, and we predict how to assess it experimentally. Our results suggest a reexamination of the role of intrinsic properties in the collective network dynamics responsible for flexible working memory.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT This study unravels a novel form of intrinsic neuronal property: conditional bistability. We show that, thanks to its conditional character, conditional bistability favors the emergence of flexible and robust forms of persistent activity in PFC neural networks, in opposition to previously studied classical forms of absolute bistability. Specifically, we demonstrate for the first time that conditional bistability (1) is a generic biophysical spike-dependent mechanism of layer V pyramidal neurons in the PFC and that (2) it accounts for essential neurodynamical features for the organization and flexibility of PFC persistent activity (the large irregularity and intertrial variability of the discharge and its organization under discrete stable states), which remain unexplained in a robust fashion by current models.

Keywords: conditional bistability; flexible; generic; memory; robust; working memory.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Action Potentials / physiology
  • Algorithms*
  • Calcium Channels / physiology
  • Computer Simulation
  • Humans
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*
  • Models, Neurological
  • Nerve Net / physiology
  • Neural Networks, Computer
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Pyramidal Cells / physiology
  • Synapses
  • Wakefulness / physiology
  • White Matter / physiology


  • Calcium Channels