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Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. Aug 29, 2002; 357(1424): 987–1001.
PMCID: PMC1693013

The temporal resolution of neural codes: does response latency have a unique role?

Abstract

This article reviews the nature of the neural code in non-human primate cortex and assesses the potential for neurons to carry two or more signals simultaneously. Neurophysiological recordings from visual and motor systems indicate that the evidence for a role for precisely timed spikes relative to other spike times (ca. 1-10 ms resolution) is inconclusive. This indicates that the visual system does not carry a signal that identifies whether the responses were elicited when the stimulus was attended or not. Simulations show that the absence of such a signal reduces, but does not eliminate, the increased discrimination between stimuli that are attended compared with when the stimuli are unattended. The increased accuracy asymptotes with increased gain control, indicating limited benefit from increasing attention. The absence of a signal identifying the attentional state under which stimuli were viewed can produce the greatest discrimination between attended and unattended stimuli. Furthermore, the greatest reduction in discrimination errors occurs for a limited range of gain control, again indicating that attention effects are limited. By contrast to precisely timed patterns of spikes where the timing is relative to other spikes, response latency provides a fine temporal resolution signal (ca. 10 ms resolution) that carries information that is unavailable from coarse temporal response measures. Changes in response latency and changes in response magnitude can give rise to different predictions for the patterns of reaction times. The predictions are verified, and it is shown that the standard method for distinguishing executive and slave processes is only valid if the representations of interest, as evidenced by the neural code, are known. Overall, the data indicate that the signalling evident in neural signals is restricted to the spike count and the precise times of spikes relative to stimulus onset (response latency). These coding issues have implications for our understanding of cognitive models of attention and the roles of executive and slave systems.

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Selected References

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