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Phase transitions in single neurons and neural populations: Critical slowing, anesthesia, and sleep cycles

The firing of an action potential by a biological neuron represents a dramatic transition from small-scale linear stochastics (subthreshold voltage fluctuations) to gross-scale nonlinear dynamics (birth of a 1-ms voltage spike). In populations of neurons we see similar, but slower, switch-like there-and-back transitions between low-firing background states and high-firing activated states. These state transitions are controlled by varying levels of input current (single neuron), varying amounts of GABAergic drug (anesthesia), or varying concentrations of neuromodulators and neurotransmitters (natural sleep), and all occur within a milieu of unrelenting biological noise. By tracking the altering responsiveness of the excitable membrane to noisy stimulus, we can infer how close the neuronal system (single unit or entire population) is to switching threshold. We can quantify this “nearness to switching” in terms of the altering eigenvalue structure: the dominant eigenvalue approaches zero, leading to a growth in correlated, low-frequency power, with exaggerated responsiveness to small perturbations, the responses becoming larger and slower as the neural population approaches its critical point–-this is critical slowing. In this chapter we discuss phase-transition predictions for both single-neuron and neural-population models, comparing theory with laboratory and clinical measurement.
Chapter in Book
Type of thesis
Steyn-Ross, D. A., Steyn-Ross, M. L., Wilson, M. T. & Sleigh, J. W. (2010). Phase transitions in single neurons and neural populations: Critical slowing, anesthesia, and sleep cycles. In D. A. Steyn-Ross & M. Steyn-Ross (Eds), Modeling Phase Transitions in the Brain (pp. 1-26). New York, USA: Springer.
This is an author’s accepted version of an article published in the book: Modeling Phase Transitions in the Brain. © 2010 Springer Science+Business Media, LLC.