Stability of discrete memory states to stochastic fluctuations in neuronal systems

Paul Miller, Xiao Jing Wang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Noise can degrade memories by causing transitions from one memory state to another. For any biological memory system to be useful, the time scale of such noise-induced transitions must be much longer than the required duration for memory retention. Using biophysically-realistic modeling, we consider two types of memory in the brain: short-term memories maintained by reverberating neuronal activity for a few seconds, and long-term memories maintained by a molecular switch for years. Both systems require persistence of (neuronal or molecular) activity self-sustained by an autocatalytic process and, we argue, that both have limited memory lifetimes because of significant fluctuations. We will first discuss a strongly recurrent cortical network model endowed with feedback loops, for short-term memory. Fluctuations are due to highly irregular spike firing, a salient characteristic of cortical neurons. Then, we will analyze a model for long-term memory, based on an autophosphorylation mechanism of calcium/calmodulin-dependent protein kinase II (CaMKII) molecules. There, fluctuations arise from the fact that there are only a small number of CaMKII molecules at each postsynaptic density (putative synaptic memory unit). Our results are twofold. First, we demonstrate analytically and computationally the exponential dependence of stability on the number of neurons in a self-excitatory network, and on the number of CaMKII proteins in a molecular switch. Second, for each of the two systems, we implement graded memory consisting of a group of bistable switches. For the neuronal network we report interesting ramping temporal dynamics as a result of sequentially switching an increasing number of discrete, bistable, units. The general observation of an exponential increase in memory stability with the system size leads to a trade-off between the robustness of memories (which increases with the size of each bistable unit) and the total amount of information storage (which decreases with increasing unit size), which may be optimized in the brain through biological evolution.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number026109
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2006

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Statistical and Nonlinear Physics
  • Mathematical Physics
  • General Physics and Astronomy
  • Applied Mathematics


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