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Network. 2003 Feb;14(1):103-18.

Information encoding and computation with spikes and bursts.

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Volen Center for Complex Systems, Brandeis University, 415 South Street, Waltham, MA 02454, USA.


Neurons compute and communicate by transforming synaptic input patterns into output spike trains. The nature of this transformation depends crucially on the properties of voltage-gated conductances in neuronal membranes. These intrinsic membrane conductances can enable neurons to generate different spike patterns including brief, high-frequency bursts that are commonly observed in a variety of brain regions. Here we examine how the membrane conductances that generate bursts affect neural computation and encoding. We simulated a bursting neuron model driven by random current input signal and superposed noise. We consider two issues: the timing reliability of different spike patterns and the computation performed by the neuron. Statistical analysis of the simulated spike trains shows that the timing of bursts is much more precise than the timing of single spikes. Furthermore, the number of spikes per burst is highly robust to noise. Next we considered the computation performed by the neuron: how different features of the input current are mapped into specific output spike patterns. Dimensional reduction and statistical classification techniques were used to determine the stimulus features triggering different firing patterns. Our main result is that spikes, and bursts of different durations, code for different stimulus features, which can be quantified without a priori assumptions about those features. These findings lead us to propose that the biophysical mechanisms of spike generation enables individual neurons to encode different stimulus features into distinct spike patterns.

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