As in many naturally formed networks, the brain exhibits an inherent modular architecture that is the basis of its rich operability, robustness, and integration-segregation capacity. However, the mechanisms that allow spatially segregated neuronal assemblies to swiftly change from localized to global activity remain unclear. Here, we integrate microfabrication technologywith in vitro cortical networks to investigate the dynamical repertoire and functional traits of four interconnected neuronal modules. We show that the coupling among modules is central. The highest dynamical richness of the network emerges at a critical connectivity at the verge of physical disconnection. Stronger coupling leads to a persistently coherent activity among the modules, while weaker coupling precipitates the activity to be localized solely within the modules. An in silico modeling of the experiments reveals that the advent of coherence is mediated by a trade-off between connectivity and subquorum firing, a mechanism flexible enough to allow for the coexistence of both segregated and integrated activities. Our results unveil a new functional advantage of modular organization in complex networks of nonlinear units.
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