Variability is a prominent characteristic of cognitive brain function. For instance, different trials of presentation of the same stimulus yield higher variability in its perception: subjects sometimes fail in perceiving the same stimulus. Perceptual variability could be attributable to ongoing-spontaneous fluctuation in neuronal activity prior to sensory stimulation. Simulating a cortical neural network model, we investigated the underlying neuronal mechanism of perceptual variability in relation to variability in ongoing-spontaneous neuronal activity. In the network model, populations of principal cells (cell assemblies) encode information about sensory features. Each cell assembly is sensitive to one particular feature stimulus. Transporters on GABAergic interneurons regulate ambient GABA concentration in a neuronal activity-dependent manner. Ambient GABA molecules activate extrasynaptic GABA receptors on principal cells and interneurons, and provide them with tonic inhibitory currents. We controlled the variability of ongoing-spontaneous neuronal activity by manipulating the basal level of ambient GABA and assessed the perceptual performance of the network: detection of a feature stimulus. In an erroneous response, stimulus-irrelevant but not stimulus-relevant principal cells were activated, generating trains of action potentials. Perceptual variability, reflected in error rate in detecting the same stimulus that was presented repeatedly to the network, was increased as the variability in ongoing-spontaneous membrane potential among cell assemblies increased. Frequent, transient membrane depolarization below firing threshold was the major cause of the increased neuronal variability, for which a decrease in basal ambient GABA concentration was responsible. We suggest that ambient GABA in the brain may have a role in reducing the variability in ongoing-spontaneous neuronal activity, leading to a decrease in perceptual variability and therefore to reliable sensory perception.

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