We propose a biophysical mechanism for the high interspike interval variability observed in cortical spike trains. The key lies in the nonlinear dynamics of cortical spike generation, which are consistent with type I membranes where saddle-node dynamics underlie excitability (Rinzel & Ermentrout, 1989). We present a canonical model for type I membranes, the θ-neuron. The θ-neuron is a phase model whose dynamics reflect salient features of type I membranes. This model generates spike trains with coefficient of variation (CV) above 0.6 when brought to firing by noisy inputs. This happens because the timing of spikes for a type I excitable cell is exquisitely sensitive to the amplitude of the suprathreshold stimulus pulses. A noisy input current, giving random amplitude “kicks” to the cell, evokes highly irregular firing across a wide range of firing rates; an intrinsically oscillating cell gives regular spike trains. We corroborate the results with simulations of the Morris-Lecar (M-L) neural model with random synaptic inputs: type I M-L yields high CVs. When this model is modified to have type II dynamics (periodicity arises via a Hopf bifurcation), however, it gives regular spike trains (CV below 0.3). Our results suggest that the high CV values such as those observed in cortical spike trains are an intrinsic characteristic of type I membranes driven to firing by “random” inputs. In contrast, neural oscillators or neurons exhibiting type II excitability should produce regular spike trains.

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