Are dragon-king neuronal avalanches dungeons for self-organized brain activity?
Department of Information Engineering and CNISM, Second University of Naples, 81031 Aversa (CE), Italy
Revised: 9 March 2012
Published online: 1 May 2012
Recent experiments have detected a novel form of spontaneous neuronal activity both in vitro and in vivo: neuronal avalanches. The statistical properties of this activity are typical of critical phenomena, with power laws characterizing the distributions of avalanche size and duration. A critical behaviour for the spontaneous brain activity has important consequences on stimulated activity and learning. Very interestingly, these statistical properties can be altered in significant ways in epilepsy and by pharmacological manipulations. In particular, there can be an increase in the number of large events anticipated by the power law, referred to herein as dragon-king avalanches. This behaviour, as verified by numerical models, can originate from a number of different mechanisms. For instance, it is observed experimentally that the emergence of a critical behaviour depends on the subtle balance between excitatory and inhibitory mechanisms acting in the system. Perturbing this balance, by increasing either synaptic excitation or the incidence of depolarized neuronal up-states causes frequent dragon-king avalanches. Conversely, an unbalanced GABAergic inhibition or long periods of low activity in the network give rise to sub-critical behaviour. Moreover, the existence of power laws, common to other stochastic processes, like earthquakes or solar flares, suggests that correlations are relevant in these phenomena. The dragon-king avalanches may then also be the expression of pathological correlations leading to frequent avalanches encompassing all neurons. We will review the statistics of neuronal avalanches in experimental systems. We then present numerical simulations of a neuronal network model introducing within the self-organized criticality framework ingredients from the physiology of real neurons, as the refractory period, synaptic plasticity and inhibitory synapses. The avalanche critical behaviour and the role of dragon-king avalanches will be discussed in relation to different drives, neuronal states and microscopic mechanisms of charge storage and release in neuronal networks.
© EDP Sciences, Springer-Verlag, 2012