Spike timing-dependent plasticity (STDP) is considered as an ubiquitous rule for associative plasticity in cortical networks in vitro. However, limited supporting evidence for its functional role has been provided in vivo. In particular, there are very few studies demonstrating the co-occurrence of synaptic efficiency changes and alteration of sensory responses in adult cortex during Hebbian or STDP protocols. We addressed this issue by reviewing and comparing the functional effects of two types of cellular conditioning in cat visual cortex. The first one, referred to as the “covariance” protocol, obeys a generalized Hebbian framework, by imposing, for different stimuli, supervised positive and negative changes in covariance between postsynaptic and presynaptic activity rates. The second protocol, based on intracellular recordings, replicated in vivo variants of the theta-burst paradigm (TBS), proven successful in inducing long-term potentiation in vitro. Since it was shown to impose a precise correlation delay between the electrically activated thalamic input and the TBS-induced postsynaptic spike, this protocol can be seen as a probe of causal (“pre-before-post”) STDP. By choosing a thalamic region where the visual field representation was in retinotopic overlap with the intracellularly recorded cortical receptive field as the afferent site for supervised electrical stimulation, this protocol allowed to look for possible correlates between STDP and functional reorganization of the conditioned cortical receptive field. The rate-based “covariance protocol” induced significant and large amplitude changes in receptive field properties, in both kitten and adult V1 cortex. The TBS STDP-like protocol produced in the adult significant changes in the synaptic gain of the electrically activated thalamic pathway, but the statistical significance of the functional correlates was detectable mostly at the population level. Comparison of our observations with the literature leads us to re-examine the experimental status of spike timing-dependent potentiation in adult cortex. We propose the existence of a correlation-based threshold in vivo, limiting the expression of STDP-induced changes outside the critical period, and which accounts for the stability of synaptic weights during sensory cortical processing in the absence of attention or reward-gated supervision
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