Sensory memory is the first step of a complex memorization process. Sensory information is buffered in a "sensory store" for a short period. Then part of it is transferred to working memory, where information can be actively processed and, eventually, through its rehearsal, can be memorized and stored in long-term memory. Sensory memory is characterized by a high capacity and a short temporal extension. In this work we show that such a transient buffering of information is well captured in models of cortical microcircuits. Sensory information stays for a short time in the perturbations it induced to the neural activity. Two fundamental characteristics of cortical columns appear to be useful to this purpose. The first one is an approximate balance of neuronal excitation and inhibition. The second one is the sparseness of cells recurrent connections. Together, these two discriminants ensure a broad set of complex dynamical behaviours of the neural network along with the presence of a phase of sustained non-oscillatory activity with very irregular spike trains in individual neurons. We show that at the vicinity of a phase transition from a quiescent state to a phase of chaotic spiking activity, global stimuli can be buffered in the "macroscopic" neuronal activity. However if the sensory input only excites a subpart of the network, efficient information buffering is made using the detailed spiking activity of every neuron in the network. The "microscopic" structure of the network is therefore needed in order to buffer sensory information. In most situations, addition of noise enhances the buffering performance and the computational power of the network. This effect is known in the physical literature as "stochastic resonance". If the network has to achieve complex transformation of its inputs, stochastic resonance is shown to be an emergent property of the population of neurons. Both the very irregular spiking activity present in vivo and the balanced excitation and inhibition measured in cortical columns have a new functional relevance in being the neuronal substrate of an efficient sensory memory .