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J Neurophysiol. 2010 Apr;103(4):2074-84. doi: 10.1152/jn.00474.2009. Epub 2010 Feb 17.

Activity in the barrel cortex during active behavior and sleep.

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  • 1Program in Neuroscience, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, USA.


The rate at which neurons fire has wide-reaching implications for the coding schemes used by neural systems. Despite the extensive use of the barrel cortex as a model system, relatively few studies have examined the rate of sensory activity in single neurons in freely moving animals. We examined the activity of barrel cortex neurons in behaving animals during sensory cue interaction, during non-stimulus-related activity, during various states of sleep, and during the administration of isoflurane. The activity of regular-spiking units (RSUs: predominantly excitatory neurons) and fast spiking units (FSUs: a subtype of inhibitory interneurons) was examined separately. We characterized activity by calculating neural firing rates, because several reports have emphasized the low firing rates in this system, reporting that both baseline activity and stimulus evoked activity is <1 Hz. We report that, during sensory cue interaction or non-stimulus-related activity, the majority of RSUs in rat barrel cortex fired at rates significantly >1 Hz, with 27.4% showing rates above 10 Hz during cue interaction. Even during slow wave sleep, which had the lowest mean and median firing rates of any nonanesthetized state observed, 80.0% of RSUs fired above 1 Hz. During all of the nonanesthetized states observed 100% of the FSUs fired well above 1 Hz. When rats were administered isoflurane and at a depth of anesthesia used in standard in vivo electrophysiological preparations, all of the RSUs fired below 1 Hz. We also found that >80% of RSUs either upmodulated or downmodulated their firing during cue interaction. These data suggest that low firing rates do not typify the output of the barrel cortex during awake activity and during sleep and indicate that sensory coding at both the individual and population levels may be nonsparse.

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