Neuronal ensembles: emergent units of cortical function?

28 June 2019

Rafael Yuste
Neurotechnology Centre
Department of Biological Sciences
Columbia University


The design of neural circuits, with large numbers of neurons interconnected in vast networks, strongly suggest that they are specifically built to generate emergent functional properties (1). To explore this hypothesis, we have developed two-photon holographic methods to selective image and manipulate the activity of neuronal populations in 3D in vivo (2). Using them we find that groups of synchronous neurons (neuronal ensembles) dominate the evoked and spontaneous activity of mouse primary visual cortex (3). Ensembles can be optogenetically imprinted for several days and some of their neurons trigger the entire ensemble (4). By activating these pattern completion cells in ensembles involved in visual discrimination paradigms, we can bi-directionally alter behavioral choices (5). Our results are consistent with the possibility that neuronal ensembles are functional building blocks of cortical circuits.


  1. R Yuste, "From the neuron doctrine to neural networks", Nat Rev Neurosci 16:487-497 2015. PMID
  2. L Carrillo-Reid, W Yang, J E Kang Miller, D S Peterka, R Yuste, "Imaging and optically manipulating neuronal ensembles", Annu Rev Biophys 46:271-293 2017. PMID
  3. J E Miller, I Ayzenshtat, L Carrillo-Reid, R Yuste, "Visual stimuli recruit intrinsically generated cortical ensembles", PNAS 111:E4053-4061 2014. PMID
  4. L Carrillo-Reid, W Yang, Y Bando, D S Peterka, R Yuste, "Imprinting and recalling cortical ensembles", Science 353:691-694 2016. PMID
  5. L Carrillo-Reid, S Han, W Yang, A Akrouh, R Yuste, "Triggering visually-guided behavior by holographic activation of pattern completion neurons in cortical ensembles", bioRxiv:394999 2018.

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