State-dependent brain functions and adrenaline

This 2015 German/Italian rodent study investigated:

“How a specific neuromodulatory input may influence the information content and the readout of cortical information representations of sensory stimuli.

The locus coeruleus (LC) is a brainstem neuromodulatory nucleus that likely plays a prominent role in shaping cortical states via a highly distributed noradrenaline release in the forebrain. In particular, the LC:

  • contributes to regulation of arousal and sleep;
  • it is involved in cognitive functions such as vigilance, attention, and selective sensory processing; and
  • it modulates cortical sensory responses and cortical excitability.

An important addition of our work to previous models of state dependence was the inclusion of the contribution of an important neuromodulator—the noradrenergic system. Our results support the hypothesis that the temporal structure of LC firing causally influences cortical dynamics.

Our work highlights the importance of timing of LC burst: suitably timed LC burst (for example, triggered by an alerting stimulus) can very rapidly trigger transitions into excitable cortical states, which in turn decrease the threshold for cortical responses and thus dynamically facilitate the processing of salient or attended events.

State dependence may either:

  • force neurons to transmit information only using codes that are robust to state fluctuations (e.g., relative firing rates), or may
  • force downstream neurons to gain information about the state of the networks sending the sensory messages and then to use the knowledge of state to properly interpret neural responses.

Our results suggest that the latter information transmission scheme is feasible, because detecting state by either monitoring the dynamics of cortical ongoing activity alone or by also monitoring the dynamics of noradrenergic modulation substantially increased the amount of information about sensory stimuli in the late response components relevant for behavior.”

The study added to the evidence that state dependencies can’t be overlooked in explanations of brain function and resultant physical and mental activity. Locus coeruleus neural activity “can very rapidly trigger transitions into excitable cortical states..and thus dynamically facilitate the processing of salient or attended events.”

Adrenaline from the locus coeruleus produced a state of arousal in multiple brain and body areas tied into the subjects’ sympathetic nervous systems. Such internal state changes may be accompanied by state-dependent memories, following the findings of What can cause memories that are accessible only when returning to the original brain state?

The study highlighted the capability of a lower brain structure to influence other brain areas. Its findings should inform researchers in attention and behavior studies, especially when investigating causes of certain attention and behavior difficulties.

http://www.pnas.org/content/112/41/12834.full “Modeling the effect of locus coeruleus firing on cortical state dynamics and single-trial sensory processing”

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