Suppression of cortical neural variability is stimulus- and state-dependent
Internally generated, spontaneous activity is ubiquitous in the cortex, yet it does not appear to have a significant negative impact on sensory processing. Various studies have found that stimulus onset reduces the variability of cortical responses, but the characteristics of this suppression remained unexplored. By recording multiunit activity from awake and anesthetized rats, we investigated whether and how this noise suppression depends on properties of the stimulus and on the state of the cortex. In agreement with theoretical predictions, we found that the degree of noise suppression in awake rats has a nonmonotonic dependence on the temporal frequency of a flickering visual stimulus with an optimal frequency for noise suppression ∼2 Hz. This effect cannot be explained by features of the power spectrum of the spontaneous neural activity. The nonmonotonic frequency dependence of the suppression of variability gradually disappears under increasing levels of anesthesia and shifts to a monotonic pattern of increasing suppression with decreasing frequency. Signal-to-noise ratios show a similar, although inverted, dependence on cortical state and frequency. These results suggest the existence of an active noise suppression mechanism in the awake cortical system that is tuned to support signal propagation and coding.