Kosse C, Burdakov D (2014) A unifying computational framework for stability and flexibility of arousal.Front Syst Neurosci 8: 192
Arousal and consciousness flexibly adjust to salient cues, but remain stable despite noise and disturbance. Diverse, highly interconnected neural networks govern the underlying transitions of behavioral state; these networks are robust but very complex. Frameworks from systems engineering provide powerful tools for understanding functional logic behind component complexity. From a general systems viewpoint, a minimum of three communicating control modules may enable flexibility and stability to coexist. Comparators would subtract current arousal from desired arousal, producing an error signal. Regulators would compute control signals from this error. Generators would convert control signals into arousal, which is fed back to comparators, to make the system noise-proof through self-correction. Can specific neurons correspond to these control elements? To explore this, here we consider the brain-wide orexin/hypocretin network, which is experimentally established to be vital for flexible and stable arousal. We discuss whether orexin neurons may act as comparators, and their target neurons as regulators and generators. Experiments are proposed for testing such predictions, based on computational simulations showing that comparators, regulators, and generators have distinct temporal signatures of activity. If some regulators integrate orexin-communicated errors, robust arousal control may be achieved via integral feedback (a basic engineering strategy for tracking a set-point despite noise). An integral feedback view also suggests functional roles for specific molecular aspects, such as differing life-spans of orexin peptides. The proposed framework offers a unifying logic for molecular, cellular, and network details of arousal systems, and provides insight into behavioral state transitions, complex behavior, and bases for disease.