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The influence of population size, noise strength and behavioral task on best-encoded stimulus for neurons with unimodal or monotonic tuning curves

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Original languageEnglish
JournalFrontiers in Computational Neuroscience
Publication statusPublished - 17 Feb 2015


Tuning curves and receptive fields are widely used to describe the selectivity of sensory neurons, but the relationship between firing rates and information is not always intuitive. Neither high firing rates nor high tuning curve gradients necessarily mean that stimuli at that part of the tuning curve are well represented by a neuron. Recent research has shown that trial-to-trial variability (noise) and population size can strongly affect which stimuli are most precisely represented by a neuron in the context of a population code (the best-encoded stimulus), and that different measures of information can give conflicting indications. Specifically, the Fisher information is greatest where the tuning curve gradient is greatest, such as on the flanks of peaked tuning curves, but the stimulus-specific information (SSI) is greatest at the tuning curve peak for small populations with high trial-to-trial variability. Previous research in this area has focussed upon unimodal (peaked) tuning curves, and in this article we extend these analyses to monotonic tuning curves. In addition, we examine how stimulus spacing in forced choice tasks affects the best-encoded stimulus. Our results show that, regardless of the tuning curve, Fisher information correctly predicts the best-encoded stimulus for large populations and where the stimuli are closely spaced in forced choice tasks. In smaller populations with high variability, or in forced choice tasks with widely-spaced choices, the best-encoded stimulus falls at the peak of unimodal tuning curves, but is more variable for monotonic tuning curves. Task, population size and variability all need to be considered when assessing which stimuli a neuron represents, but the best-encoded stimulus can be estimated on a case-by case basis using commonly available computing facilities.

    Research areas

  • population code, SSI, fisher information, Chernoff, tuning curve, monotonic, unimodal

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