Synaptic plasticity is sensitive to the rate and the timing of presynaptic and postsynaptic action potentials. In experimental protocols inducing plasticity, the imposed spike trains are typically regular and the relative timing between every presynaptic and postsynaptic spike is fixed. This is at odds with firing patterns observed in the cortex of intact animals, where cells fire irregularly and the timing between presynaptic and postsynaptic spikes varies. To investigate synaptic changes elicited by in vivo-like firing, we used numerical simulations and mathematical analysis of synaptic plasticity models. We found that the influence of spike timing on plasticity is weaker than expected from regular stimulation protocols. Moreover, when neurons fire irregularly, synaptic changes induced by precise spike timing can be equivalently induced by a modest firing rate variation. Our findings bridge the gap between existing results on synaptic plasticity and plasticity occurring in vivo, and challenge the dominant role of spike timing in plasticity.
Graupner, M., Wallisch, P., & Ostojic, S. (2016). Natural firing patterns imply low sensitivity of synaptic plasticity to spike timing compared with firing rate. Journal of Neuroscience, 36(44), 11238–11258. https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0104-16.2016