Correlations in background activity control persistent state stability and allow execution of working memory tasks
Working memory (WM) requires selective information gating, active information maintenance, and rapid active updating. Hence performing a WM task needs rapid and controlled transitions between neural persistent activity and the resting state. We propose that changes in correlations in neural activity provides a mechanism for the required WM operations. As a proof of principle, we implement sustained activity and WM in recurrently coupled spiking networks with neurons receiving excitatory random background activity where background correlations are induced by a common noise source. We first characterize how the level of background correlations controls the stability of the persistent state. With sufficiently high correlations, the sustained state becomes practically unstable, so it cannot be initiated by a transient stimulus. We exploit this in WM models implementing the delay match to sample task by modulating flexibly in time the correlation level at different phases of the task. The modulation sets the network in different working regimes: more prompt to gate in a signal or clear the memory. We examine how the correlations affect the ability of the network to perform the task when distractors are present. We show that in a winner-take-all version of the model, where two populations cross-inhibit, correlations make the distractor blocking robust. In a version of the mode where no cross inhibition is present, we show that appropriate modulation of correlation levels is sufficient to also block the distractor access while leaving the relevant memory trace in tact. The findings presented in this manuscript can form the basis for a new paradigm about how correlations are flexibly controlled by the cortical circuits to execute WM operations.