Bursts as a unit of neural information: making unreliable synapses reliable

Trends Neurosci. 1997 Jan;20(1):38-43. doi: 10.1016/S0166-2236(96)10070-9.


Several lines of evidence indicate that brief (< 25 ms) bursts of high-frequency firing have special importance in brain function. Recent work shows that many central synapses are surprisingly unreliable at signaling the arrival of single presynaptic action potentials to the postsynaptic neuron. However, bursts are reliably signaled because transmitter release is facilitated. Thus, these synapses can be viewed as filters that transmit bursts, but filter out single spikes. Bursts appear to have a special role in synaptic plasticity and information processing. In the hippocampus, a single burst can produce long-term synaptic modifications. In brain structures whose computational role is known, action potentials that arrive in bursts provide more-precise information than action potentials that arrive singly. These results, and the requirement for multiple inputs to fire a cell suggest that the best stimulus for exciting a cell (that is, a neural code) is coincident bursts.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Neurons / ultrastructure
  • Periodicity*
  • Synapses / physiology*